‘Won’t Back Down’ Film Pushes ALEC Parent Trigger Proposal

by on September 22, 2012 · 9 comments

in Activism, Business, Education, Politics

by Mary Bottari and Sara Jerving /PRWatch.Org

Well-funded advocates of privatizing the nation’s education system are employing a new strategy this fall to enlist support for the cause. The emotionally engaging Hollywood film “Won’t Back Down” — set for release September 28 — portrays so-called “Parent Trigger” laws as an effective mechanism for transforming underperforming public schools. But the film’s distortion of the facts prompts a closer examination of its funders and backers and a closer look at those promoting Parent Trigger as a cure for what ails the American education system.

While Parent Trigger was first promoted by a small charter school operator in California, it was taken up and launched into hyperdrive by two controversial right-wing organizations: the American Legislative Exchange Council(ALEC) and the Heartland Institute.

(Editors Note: this film is being promoted in San Diego by a group calling itself “Up for Ed”. They’re hosting a premiere this week, with a “panel” that, interestingly enough, includes not a single teacher. You can read about Up for Ed’s involvement with so-called reformer Michelle Rhee in this excellent article by San Diegan Aaron Belfer.) 

ALEC brings together major American corporations and right-wing legislators to craft and vote on “model” bills behind closed doors. These bills include extreme gun laws, like Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law implicated in the Trayvon Martin shooting, union-busting legislation, Arizona style anti-immigrant legislation and voter suppression laws that have sparked lawsuits across the nation. The organization’s agenda is so extreme that in the last few months 40 major U.S. companies, including Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, Kraft, and General Motors, have severed ties with ALEC.

Similarly, the Heartland Institute recently suffered an exodus of corporate sponsors after it launched a billboard comparing those who believe in the science behind global warming to the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.

As the movie’s stars take to the airwaves this week to promote the film, it is unlikely they will discuss the agenda of the film’s billionaire backers or the right-wing politicians and for-profit firms who are promoting the Parent Trigger idea, the purpose of which is to promote the transformation of the American public school system into a for-profit enterprise. We provide a primer below.

Hollywood Fiction vs. the Facts on Parent Trigger

What is a Parent Trigger law? The proposals have varied from state to state, but they generally allow parents at any failing school, defined by standardized testing, to sign a petition to radically transform the school using any of four “triggers.” Parents can petition to: 1) fire the principal, 2) fire half of the teachers, 3) close the school and let parents find another option, or 4) convert the school into a charter school. While the details of how the school can be “restructured” vary from state to state, the charter school option is always present. Charter schools are privately managed, taxpayer-funded public schools which are granted greater autonomy from regulations applicable to other public schools, ostensibly in exchange for greater accountability for results, but they have been criticized for uneven and mediocre track records.

The film, starring Oscar nominee Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal, reportedly portrays the struggle of a teacher and a parent who work to transform a low-performing Pennsylvania school, despite resistance from the local union — cast as the enemy of reform. Together, the African American teacher and the white, single mom unite to overcome hurdles and go door-to-door convincing parents to sign a petition to trigger a transformation.

While in reality most teachers do not sign the petitions and teachers are likely to get fired under Parent Trigger laws, “Won’t Back Down” has teachers uniting with parents to sign the petition and transform the school. Eventually, 50 percent of teachers sign as well as parents and the intrepid duo finally turns the school into a charter school run by the Viola Davis character.

The film portrays Parent Trigger laws as a successful way of inspiring and uniting teachers and parents and the community. The real life history of Parent Trigger is quite different. Only two school districts, both in California, have used the petition mechanism: Compton Unified School District and Adelanto School District. In Compton, a new group called “Parent Revolution” founded by a charter school operator paid individuals to collect signatures to hand the school over to a charter school operator, but the courts threw out the petitions.

In Adelanto, parents first signed petitions, then had second thoughts. The school board rejected the petition after parents withdrew their support, resulting in a lawsuit. The courts ruled that parents could not rescind their signatures. The parents had advocated for turning the school into a charter school, a plan which was rejected by the school board. Instead, an advisory panel was created and headed by the superintendent. The legal battles are continuing.

Instead of prompting reform-minded unity, both petition drives have been criticized for creating “chaos and division” in the community. Charges of fraud and intimidation abound. “This is destroying friendships and all relationships,” one Adelanto parent, Chrissy Guzman-Alvarado, told The New York Times. “With our school divided, parents are scared to speak out or sign anything, and our community is falling apart. All for what?” she asks.

ALEC Spreads Parent Trigger Nationwide

The first Parent Trigger law was enacted in 2010 in California and, with an assist from Heartland and ALEC, the idea is rapidly spreading.

The California law was based on a proposal from Ben Austin, a policy consultant for a small non-profit education organization called Green Dot Public Schools, which manages charter schools for the city of Los Angeles. Austin subsequently formed Parent Revolution, which promotes these laws across the country. But this is not your local PTA. Parent Revolution is backed by big money, including receiving funding from the conservative Walton Family Foundation (think Wal-Mart), which has spent over a billion to promote school privatization.

The rabid pro-privatization Heartland Institute quickly took up the Parent Trigger idea in 2010. The Heartland version of the bill (PDF) went a step further and gave parents the authority to trigger a school’s restructuring regardless of whether it is “failing” or not. Heartland’s version of the bill also calls for a “school voucher” option, which allows students to receive a monetary voucher to attend another private or public school. Voucher or “choice” schools have been criticized for diverting funds from public schools to unaccountable private schools, including for-profit religious and virtual schools.

When a new wave of school choice supporters were swept into power at the state level in November 2010, Heartland saw an opportunity to put the Parent Trigger idea on steroids by bringing it to ALEC, the controversial corporate “bill mill.”

While ALEC has a governing board of state legislators it also has a governing board of corporations, packed with tobacco firms, giant pharmaceutical firms, and energy companies like Exxon Mobil. The ultra-conservative, billionaire Koch Brothers, have had a representative on the board for years and Koch-controlled money has funded ALEC to the tune of at least $1 million, according to estimates calculated by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD).

The ALEC Education Task Force voted to approve the “Parent Trigger Act” (PDF) at their critical December 2010 strategy meeting in Washington, D.C., and the idea quickly spread. According to CMD’s analysis, ALEC members introduced or cosponsored various versions of the bill in 17 states.

At the time, ALEC’s education task force was chaired by the for-profit education firm Connections Academy, which specializes in K-12 online education. Others on the task force include tech companies, testing companies and higher-education diploma mills like Bridgepoint Education and Corinthian Education, both of which are under investigation by state Attorneys General for aggressive recruiting policies that leave too many students in debt with no degree.

We have seen this pattern before. When the NRA finally succeeded in getting its first “Stand Your Ground” gun law passed into law in Florida, a law implicated in the tragic Trayvon Martin killing, its next step was to bring the bill to ALEC which helped it spread to two dozen other states in short order.

Parent Trigger and ALEC were a match made in heaven. ALEC’s education bills encompass more than 30 years of effort to privatize public education through an ever-expanding network of school vouchers, an idea first advocated by economist Milton Friedman in the 1950s. ALEC bills also allow schools to loosen standards for teachers and administrators, exclude students with physical disabilities and special educational needs, eschew collective bargaining, and experiment with other pet causes like merit pay, single-sex education, school uniforms, and political and religious indoctrination of students.

Parent Trigger “A Clever Way to Trick Parents”?

But does it work? The support for Parent Trigger, according to University of Illinois Professor Christopher Lubienski, is based more on ideology than empirical data. Lubienski is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Organization.

“There is not good evidence that the options given [after the trigger is pulled] improve student achievement. The goal has more to do with changing school governance and giving opportunities for some of these organizations to get control of the public dollar,” Lubienski said. “Policymakers need to look at the factors that actually influence student achievement.”

“Unfortunately, that points to a lot more difficult issues than simply changing the structure of a school. It’s relatively simple to fire the staff and bring in a charter operator. It’s more important that kids are getting proper medical attention before they are born, that their mothers are getting the right nutrition at that time, that kids are read to at home, and that they are raised in an environment that values education. This is much more difficult to influence through policy.”

The data shows that the conversion to charter schools, which Lubienski said is the constant theme running throughout the “Parent Trigger” legislation passed in states, has not shown to be effective in improving student outcomes. A study conducted at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution presents evidence that students in only 17 percent of charter school show greater improvement in math and reading than students in similar traditional public schools, whereas 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than the student would have realized had they remained in public schools. However, the conversion to charter schools has proven profitable to many U.S. firms such as ALEC member National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter school management organization operating in eight states, and K-12, Inc., which promotes “virtual” charter schools as well as “virtual” voucher schools. K-12, Inc. is under investigation in Florida for improperly certifying teachers and asking them to cover it up.

In short, Parent Trigger laws are a “clever way to trick parents into seizing control of their schools and handing it over to private corporations,” according to Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education in the first Bush Administration.

Philip Anschutz, Right-Wing Billionaire, Owns Production Company

Philip Anschutz”Won’t Back Down,” is a production of Walden Media, owned by billionaire investor and right-wing extremist Philip Anschutz. Anschutz participates in the Koch brothers’ secretive political strategy summits and funds David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity group, which backed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker‘s union busting proposal and is working to defeat Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates across the country.

Anschutz bankrolls ALEC and ALEC member groups. In 2010, The Anschutz Foundation, gave ALEC $10,000 and his Union Pacific firm was an ALEC sponsor the following year. The Foundation funded three ALEC members who sat on the ALEC Education Task Force which approved the Parent Trigger Proposal: The Independence Institute, Center for Education Reform, and Pacific Research Institute.

Anschutz has also supported the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which backs legislation designed to cripple unions; the Discovery Institute, which seeks to get creation “science” accepted in public schools; and the Mission America Foundation, whose president considers homosexuality to be a “deviance.” He also owns the conservative magazine, the Weekly Standard.

Walden Media was one of the producers of the pro-charter documentary film “Waiting for ‘Superman’.” This film was criticized by Diane Ravitch as propaganda and as “a powerful weapon on behalf of those championing the ‘free market’ and privatization.”

Rupert Murdoch, Media Mogul and Owner of Education Testing Company, Distributes Film

Rupert MurdochThe film is being distributed by 20th Century Fox, owned by News Corp. and media mogul Rupert Murdock. News Corp. owns Fox News, the Wall Street Journaland the New York Post. Murdoch formerly owned the British newspaper News of the World, which imploded once it was revealed that reporters hacked into the cell phones of the family of a murdered child, as well as the cell phones of the royal family, politicians and celebrities. The paper’s top editors and reporters were arrested although Murdoch himself has not been charged.

As CMD previously reported, News Corp. has been a member of both ALEC’s Education Task Force and Communications and Technology Task Force. Wall Street Journal editorial board member Stephen Moore, is an ALEC “scholar” and both the Wall Street Journal and Fox News have gone to bat for ALEC as member corporations began to flee earlier this year. What is less well known is that News Corp. owns Wireless Generation, a for-profit online education, software, and testing corporation, acquiring it in 2010 for $360 million. Wireless Generation is also an ALEC member. Apparently, Murdoch was anxious to get a piece of the nation’s education system, which he describes as a “500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.” News Corp’s senior Vice President in charge of its education division is none other than former Chancellor of New York City Schools, Joel Klein, who promoted a corporatist model of education reform.

Lubienski, for one is skeptical of “self-proclaimed experts on the topic of education” like Murdoch who “aren’t accountable to the public” and who have a profit motive coupled with a political agenda of widespread privatization.

Michelle Rhee, Former D.C. Chancellor of Schools, Pushes Parent Trigger

The film is being promoted by former Washington, D.C., public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Rhee spoke at both the RNC and DNC screenings of “Won’t Back Down,” and her involvement underscores what is often the bipartisan nature of the modern “school reform” movement.

Her tenure as the head of the D.C. school system was so controversial, she is widely credited with losing D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty’s reelection campaign. She was credited with greatly improving test scores in Washington, D.C. schools, but this accomplishment was cast into doubt by a USA Today investigation that suggested that test score gains during her term may have been the result of cheating on the part of school officials. The report found extremely high erasure rates that were statistically anomalous.

After resigning from her position in 2010, Rhee went on to start StudentsFirst, a 501(c)4 non-profit organization planning to engage in “direct and grassroots lobbying” on education issues including Parent Trigger. Derrell Bradford, a state director for StudentsFirst, spoke on “Enacting a Comprehensive K-12 Education Reform Agenda” at the 2011 ALEC annual meeting.

Rhee’s group receives funding from Murdoch, who “has pledged to spend more than $1 billion to bring for-profit schools, including virtual education, to the entire country by electing reform-friendly candidates and hiring top-notch state lobbyists.” New Corp’s Joel Klein serves on her organization’s board. Other supporters include New Jersey hedge funder manager David Tepper, and Alan Fournier (reportedly big backers of Romney).

Rhee was also featured in Anschutz’s film “Waiting for ‘Superman’.”

Reform or Russian Roulette?

The movie ends when the hard work of turning around a struggling school begins. The Hoover Institution study discussed above shows that only 17 percent of charter schools do a better job educating students.

With no data backing the benefits of the Parent Trigger proposal, many doubt that throwing a school system into chaos is the best way to improve troubled schools. Chaos does however give the privatizers and the profiteers starring roles in the ongoing debate over the future of the American educational system.

The Center for Media and Democracy is a non-profit investigative reporting group whose work aids public awareness about the people, companies, and groups attempting to shape the media and our democracy. CMD launched its award winning ALEC Exposed project in July 2011. Our websites are ALECExposed.orgPR Watch.orgSourceWatch.orgBanksterUSA.org, and FoodRightsNetwork.org.

avatar Kelly Mayhew September 22, 2012 at 12:25 pm

Excellent article and detailed analysis of the pervasiveness of the privatizing bullies and billionaires behind the parent trigger laws and astroturf organizations such as Up for Ed, which, I’m afraid, uses many well-intentioned parents’ concerns in the service of a larger agenda to defund public schools, vilify teachers as professionals in order to bust their unions and de-skill the profession, and set-up for-profit charter schools. Almost all of this is untested and the people who pay the most are our kids. What a far cry the U.S. is from Finland, which several decades ago decided that its number one priority was a quality education system with well-trained, well-supported teachers with autonomy over their classrooms. Folks line up to get into teaching programs because the country is so committed to its schools. What a shame we have decided to do the polar opposite of that here in this country. As a teacher myself, and, more importantly, a parent of a public school 3rd grader, this all just makes me heartsick.

avatar Sunshine September 22, 2012 at 11:10 pm

great coverage indeed! nice to know not all of us are duped by Hollywood’s hype.

avatar bob dorn September 23, 2012 at 7:12 am

White People Know More About Education Than … looks like those three bazillionaires have discovered Hollywood isn’t just for liberal elites and commonists. That Obama movie is out there too. Pretty soon, Chuck Norris and Mel Gibson be making triple comebacks, and Ronald Reagan’s appearing on linen napkins in Beverley Hills. Next stop… BOLLYWOOD!!! Go, go, go.

avatar Goatskull September 23, 2012 at 7:31 pm

What’s a commonist?

avatar Shelley Plumb September 23, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Boycott this film and tell your friends to do the same!

avatar Lisa Berlanga September 23, 2012 at 5:25 pm

As the new executive director for UPforEd, I wanted to clear up a couple things. We are not out to vilify teachers, in fact we want to do just the opposite. We want to create a system that recognizes and supports excellent teachers. No one can say the current system is working when teachers of the year get pink slipped. No one can say the system is working when some of the best and brightest in the field get pink slipped every year. No one can claim a system that doesn’t acknowledge performance in any way is a system that is working. We want a new system where excellent is recognized and teachers are supported. Also, there are zero for profit charter schools in SDUSD and we would not help set up one. But we would help a group of parents and teachers who wanted to make their school a better place for all.

avatar Curley September 23, 2012 at 7:45 pm

Gosh. That all sounds so nice. That’s why you couldn’t find even one teacher to speak with parents after showing the movie. Not even One teacher. That says it all

avatar Kimberley September 24, 2012 at 11:24 pm

1. Pink slips should not be conflated with the (due) process of intervention, support and possible removal of an inadequate teacher. Pink slips are about inexcusable budget cuts, not an opportunity to settle a personality conflict between principal and teacher. The outrage should be directed at the state law makers making these funding cuts. Are you suggesting that at any given moment teachers should be ranked and categorized so that when their number comes up they are gone? Yes, certainly the best and brightest will clamor to be a part of that system.
2. “Acknowledge performance” – Educational success comes from teacher collaboration. Merit pay is an excuse to pay all teachers less and a few more. Surveys have repeatedly shown that the most important motivator for a teacher is a supportive environment. Teaching is a profession that is not entered into for money. It’s a vocation and most teachers are insulted by the insinuation that they would work harder if only a bonus were at stake.
3. The charters are being set up at the state level in order to circumvent local control.
4. I’ve never been a teacher, but all of this is common sense. Talk to the teachers. Your actions and efforts are doing more to chase from the teaching profession the best, brightest and most experienced teachers. How can you not see the damage you are causing?

avatar John P. Falchi September 24, 2012 at 11:50 pm

What started as a sincere effort at reform, the Charter School Movement has been taken over by large corporations who are more interested in the bottom line of profit than they are in quality education for our children. They have arranged to be very selective in the students they allow in to the charter schools, excluding those with learning and physical disabilities and special education students. Nevertheless, even with a more selective group of students that they enroll, only 17 % of them show any improvement in student results, whereas many more of them do much worse than the regular public schools, according to a major Stanford University Study. It is high time that we reassess the ease with which public schools are changed into charter schools to the benefit of the large corporations, and instead use that money to improve our regular public schools.

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