‘Won’t Back Down’ pushes ALEC’s right-wing education agenda

So the new movie, “Won’t Back Down”, is a production of Philip Anschutz, a right-wing extremist billionaire — one of the major funders of Americans for Prosperity — and not coincidentally, ALEC. Which also happens to be the group pushing this “parent trigger” legislation.

Can you guess where all this is headed? I knew you could!

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” varies 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 a very uneven track record.


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-doorconvincing 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 a 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.


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.

Oh, and if you’re the parent of a 12-year-old and you’ve only just found out the kid can’t read, maybe the problem isn’t the teachers.

Despair

But we don’t talk about the poor, now that everyone’s been promoted to the middle class:

An extremely disturbing new study published in the American Journal of Public Health finds that suicides have replaced car accidents as the leading cause of injury-related death in the U.S. This is partly because deaths from automobile accidents are down — that’s the good news.

But the truly catastrophic news is that the suicide rate has increased dramatically: between 2000 and 2009, according to data from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, deaths by suicide went up by 15%, and deaths from poisoning increased by a whopping 128%. Moreover, researchers say that many of the poisoning deaths, which are labeled as “accidental,” may actually be intentional. According to the study’s author, Professor Ian Rockett, an epidemiologist at West Virginia University, “Suicides are terribly undercounted; I think the problem is much worse than official data would lead us to believe.” He added “there may be 20 percent or more unrecognized suicides.”

Experts note that much of the increase in poisoning deaths is due to prescription drug overdoses, but none of the reports I found about the study speculate about what psychological, social, or economic causes are behind the spike in suicides. (I was unable to find an online copy of the study itself). But there is strong evidence elsewhere that our disastrous economy may be playing a significant role. Last year, a report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that “[s]uicide rates in the U.S. tend to rise during recessions and fall amid economic booms.”

In Europe, a recent wave of “suicides by economic crisis” has been well-documented, as these shocking statistics attest:

In Greece, the suicide rate among men increased more than 24 percent from 2007 to 2009, government statistics show. In Ireland during the same period, suicides among men rose more than 16 percent. In Italy, suicides motivated by economic difficulties have increased 52 percent, to 187 in 2010 — the most recent year for which statistics were available — from 123 in 2005.

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