Hollywood fantasy imagines charter schools to be the answer when studies show they underperform

This year’s liberal stand-in for the devil incarnate are the Koch Brothers, who have forked over millions of dollars to establish the Tea Party, push Tea Party candidates, raise doubts about climate change and promote legislation that guts environmental regulations and reduces taxes on the wealthy.

It’s hard to vote against Dave and Charles when it comes to spreading around the bucks for bad causes, but how about Phillip Anschutz, the Conservative billionaire who financed the current anti-union melodrama, Won’t Back Down.

Won’t Back Down paints an ugly imaginary world in which all unionized teachers are lazy, uncaring incompetents. A sexy babe single parent played by Maggie Gyllenhaal organizes a charter school that saves the children.

According to Wikipedia, the film is “loosely based on the events surrounding the use of the parent trigger law in Sunland-Tujunga, Los Angeles, California in 2010, where several groups of parents attempted to take over several failing public schools” using a new law passed in California in 2010 which enabled parents “to direct changes such as dismissal of staff and potential conversion of a school to a charter school.”

The right-wing backing of Won’t Back Down begins with the studio that produced this fantasy, which also made Waiting for Superman, the documentary on charter schools that uses argument by anecdote to convince us that charter schools will save American public schools.  Anschultz, famous for his values campaigns and support of conservative think tanks, put up the money. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, known for its stands against unions, the minimum wage and any kind of government regulation of business, contributed $2.0 million to a national publicity campaign for the movie.

By the way, Ms. Gyllenhaal went to the ritziest of private schools, belongs to a fabulously wealthy family and descends from Swedish royalty.  A lot of wealthy and connected people who send their own children to private schools like Bruce Rauner and Malin Burnham have put their money and influence behind the charter school movement.

The question is: why would these right-wingers create and promote a slickly sentimental inspirational tearjerker about establishing a type of school that is known to fail?

Despite the glossy but distorted images of educational success in both Won’t Back Down and Waiting for Superman, charter schools are known to fail.

Let’s remain in the reality-based community that Karl Rove likes to belittle and look at the facts: Virtually all studies show that the charter school movement has yielded disappointing results in the area of student performance in school and standardized tests (which don’t test all skills, but do test a lot of skills such as reading and math that are needed to get through life and hold down a job). For example, a recent Stanford University study found that the math performance of 46% of charter schools is indistinguishable from public schools, 17% had substantially higher scores and 37% of charter schools had substantially lower scores than their public school equivalents.

Why do conservatives support charter schools?  Can the answer be anything other than breaking teachers’ unions? What I find so amazing is that so many people buy the argument that less experienced, lower paid teachers in charter or private schools or in the Teach for America program (which let’s high-flying recent college graduates without education degrees teach in disadvantaged schools for a year or so) will do a better job than higher-paid teachers in unions. We think that higher paid actors, athletes, musicians, attorneys, physicians and business people are better at what they do. What’s different about teachers? And yet all these popular education reform movements seem to have as their goal the destruction of teacher unions and the lowering of salaries for the professionals who educate our young.

What we need to improve public education are more teachers and better facilities—smaller class sizes, more specialists helping kids with learning disabilities and those who are gifted, more computer labs and science labs, a shorter cycle of replacing text books and larger budgets for supplies. A recent study showed that better-performing schools spend more money on the classroom and teachers than do underperforming schools.

Of course that takes money, which mean that Phillip Anschutz and the other rich folk backing the attack on traditional public schools will have to pay more in  taxes.

One comment on “Hollywood fantasy imagines charter schools to be the answer when studies show they underperform
  1. Dirk Sayers says:

    Hi Marc:

    Nice post! From the collective hand wringing over education, you’d think that facilitating a quality education just suddenly got harder. With due allowance made for students today having to contend with some problems and distractions I didn’t, the formula has ALWAYS been good reading skills, critical thinking and communication skills. Get those right, everything else has a way of falling into place.

    Somewhere along the way, we (the collective we) seem to have short-circuited the connection that used to be @ least theoretically possible (was, where I was educated…with almost push-button regularity) in favor of a test our way to greatness mentality. When objective tests become the sole measure of a teacher’s worth, we have a serious problem, IMHO.

    Thanks for sharing!

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