Friday, September 28, 2012

We're The Real Parents And We Won't Back Down

Cross posted from WHYY's NewsWorks

Yesterday marked the kick off of NBC’s third Education Nation, which is billed as a “year-round initiative to engage the country in a solutions-focused conversation about the state of education in America.”  The day’s events included both a student and teacher Town Hall, and a panel discussion on “Parent Engagement & Advocacy.” 

My ticket to the event came through the hard work of Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters and Parents Across America.  After parents were shut out of Education Nation in 2011, Leonie petitioned the network to give parents a voice.  She was given a block of tickets for the parent panel and told there would be time for questions from the audience. 

Although both the teacher and student town halls were two hours in length and had Q & A sessions, which according to attendees got quite lively at times, the parent panel had no Q & A, and out of 10 panelists, only two represented parents. 

The panel was broken into three segments, and it quickly became evident that this was not intended to be a true panel discussion.  The first segment included Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, and Rosie Perez, the three lead actresses in the film Won’t Back Down, and the film’s director, Daniel Barnz.  

Won’t Back Down is a fictional story of a parent and a teacher who utilize a Parent Trigger law to take over a “failing” school.  Currently seven states have adopted some form of a Parent Trigger law, first adopted in California and then promoted by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in other states.  Under the law if 50% of parents sign a petition they can decide to either 1) close the school, 2) fire a majority of the staff or 3) convert the school into a charter. 

Although the trailer and movie poster claim the film is “inspired by actual events,” to date there has not been a successful use of the parent trigger.   In Adelanto California, with the help of Parent Revolution, the same group that conceived of and wrote the original California legislation, 50% of parents signed a petition to convert the school to a charter.  Nearly 100 of those parents signed a counter petition however, and the community is now bitterly divided.  The ultimate fate of the school remains uncertain.

Doreen Diaz, one of the parents who lead the charge in Adelanto, was a guest in the second segment.  The only other parent on the panel was Vanessa Bush Ford, a member of the national PTA.  Ms. Ford stated her children currently attend private schools in Chicago, which meant the only public school parent on the panel was trying to close down her children’s public school and turn it over to a charter operator. 

This skewed perspective was not surprising, particularly when other panelists included the likes of Joel Klein, former Chancellor of New York City Schools, who currently runs Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp education division.  (Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox produced Won’t Back Down.)  Michelle Rhee, controversial former chancellor of Washington DC schools and current CEO and founder of StudentsFirst, was also a panelist.

The panel felt like nothing more than an infomercial for Won’t Back Down.  In fact, the premiere of the movie was tied to the event, and many panelists and audience members attended the premiere as well.

While some participated in the red carpet finery, others congregated directly across the street for their own red carpet event where real parent advocates from New York and New Jersey walked their own red carpet, sharing stories of parent empowerment in the fight for community schools.  As the stars arrived at the premiere protestors chanted, “We’re the real parents and we won’t back down!”

Noah Gotbaum, a New York City public school advocate said, “The parents who are here today represent the mainstream of parents across America.  Parents who believe in investing in our public schools; not closing them, not privatizing them, not handing them over to a corporation.  The parents here believe in keeping public education public.”

The protest did not go unnoticed.  Inside the premiere NBC News President Steve Capus made note of the “noisy welcome” attendees received, and claimed that he wants the discussion.  Then why was NBC’s parent engagement panel bereft of actual public school parents who don’t want their children’s schools closed or turned into a charter?

To date the research has not shown that closing a public school and reopening it as a charter will provide parents with the change they seek.  One bright spot at the panel discussion was when the moderator, MSNBC’s Alex Wagner, quoted from a Stanford University study that showed that only 17% of charters fair better than comparable public schools, while 37% actually fair worse and the remaining charters have similar outcomes. 

While documentaries like Waiting for Superman and movies like Won’t Back Down (both produced by billionaire Phillip Anschultz’s Walden Media) paint a bleak picture of the state of public education and boldly proclaim that charters will save students and parents, the majority of charters have not lived up to the hype.

If given a choice, I believe most parents would chose to work to improve their schools, not close them and turn them into privately managed charters.

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