“Won’t Back Down”? Anti-Union Propaganda at Your Local Multiplex

Or “Dammit, Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal are better than this.”

I’m sure there are countless compelling stories that could be told about failing schools and the efforts of parents and teachers to save them and their students.  However, if you choose to use your entertainment dollars this week to see Won’t Back Down, starring Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal, all you will get is right wing anti-union propaganda in an emotional, feel-good disguise.  I would love to know what blackmail material the studio has on these respected (union) actresses to get them to star in this hit piece.  From Salon.com:

The first thing to know about Friday’s opening of the school-choice drama “Won’t Back Down” is that the film’s production company specializes in children’s fantasy fare such as the “Tooth Fairy” and “Chronicles of Narnia” series. The second thing is that this company, Walden Media, is linked at the highest levels to the real-world adult alliance of corporate and far-right ideological interest groups that constitutes the so-called education reform movement, more accurately described as the education privatization movement. The third thing, and the one most likely to be passed over in the debate surrounding “Won’t Back Down” (reviewed here, and not kindly, by Salon’s own Andrew O’Hehir), is that Walden Media is itself an educational content company with a commercial interest in expanding private-sector access to American K-12 education, or what Rupert Murdoch, Walden’s distribution partner on “Won’t Back Down,” lip-lickingly calls “a $50 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.”

Hmmm, conflict of interest much?

“Won’t Back Down” dramatizes — approvingly — the execution of “parent-trigger”-style laws that have been passed in three states and are being considered in a dozen more. These laws give parents the power to form discontented majorities and sell their local public school to private charter school companies. As critics have noted, there is no mechanism in these laws to take over failing private schools. In the real world, the two instances in which the parent-trigger has been pulled have been legal and community disasters, and there is indication that even charter school companies are wary of taking over entire failed schools as opposed to skimming the cream off of several.

Parent-trigger laws, which allow parents to either fire half the teachers, fire the principal, or turn the school over to a charter school company do very little to actually turn around failing schools.  It’s not like the trigger, once pulled, magically pours adequate funding in to the school or anything.  And as stated in the above quote, the two times the trigger has been pulled have been community disasters.  (In Compton Unified School District a charter school operator started a “parents organization” then paid people to collect signatures resulting in the petition being thrown out in court, and in Adelanto School District the parents who signed the petition had second thoughts and tried to withdraw, leading to a court battle that is still on going.  See this link for details.)  Back to Salon:

But to focus on the parent-trigger plot mechanism in “Won’t Back Down” is to misunderstand the long-term strategy of the deep-pocketed education reform movement. Its plan is to undermine public education from all fronts, to keep throwing reform bills at statehouse walls and see what sticks. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, the reform movement’s own version of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), provides legislators with thick “policy combo-packs” and encourages them to file legislation in flurries. Anything that moves the needle of public opinion toward privatizing K-12 is a victory. And it’s a victory for more than just for-profit charter and private school companies. The school-choice army is increasingly diverse. It has a growing “digital learning” wing of technology and software companies eager to “individualize” and “virtualize” American classrooms. There are film education companies like Walden Media, more about which in a minute. There are educational testing companies, such as News Corp’s Wireless Generation, which have been used effectively to pummel public education but have an uncertain future in the brave new unregulated world imagined by corporate reformers. Keeping the alliance flush with tactics and strategy are the libertarian think tanks at war with teachers’ unions and the idea that the rich should pay education taxes to support schools their children do not attend.

What about Walden Media?

Walden is not a film production company so much as a synergy-minded film and education company. Along with studio offices in Los Angeles, the company maintains a large Boston office for its Education, Outreach, Interactive and Publishing division. The company produces films based on children’s books that it cross-promotes in teacher’s guides designed for the classroom, the ultimate “captured audience.” It also scoops up brands with an established K-12 presence. Last November, Walden purchased the live-action film rights for “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” which is taught in half of the country’s grammar schools.Among the films listed on Walden’s educational films Web page is “The Chronicles of Narnia,” a fantasy film the company suggests teachers use in lessons on “Arts and Creativity, Math, Science, [and] Social Studies.” The company provides downloadable teaching aids for activities such as having “students try their hand at composing movie music and building a scale-model of a set from their favorite scene from the story.”

Walden executives laid out their corporate strategy in a 2003 seminar sponsored by the Technology, Innovation and Education program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. According to a report of the event, Walden’s then-director of educational content, Jean Kwon, described Walden’s films as “inherently educational” and the perfect “entry point” to subjects such as the Civil War. Kwon touted the company’s product line of “interactive classrooms and teacher-training materials to complement their films, children’s theater, and books,” and gushed about the company’s creative efforts to penetrate classrooms. One of these involved corralling hundreds of students in the fourth through sixth grades into Regal theaters in more than 20 states, where Walden executives market-tested teacher and student reaction to their films and teaching aids. “Although Walden Media has great hopes for the workshop,” explained the reporter, “they realize that it has limitations. They have to work with some teachers’ narrowly defined view of literacy and text and their wariness that movies detract from reading literature.”

Take a few minutes and read the whole article at Salon.  Read the review for more info.  Urge Maggie and Viola to choose better films to star in.

But don’t give this school privatization propaganda film your entertainment dollars.  School privatization isn’t about educating the children, it’s about profiting off of them.


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