peanut gallery

City teachers give mixed reviews to new movie that pans unions

The lights dimmed and the screen lit up with the face of an 8-year-old girl staring at a chalkboard and struggling to read the sentence written upon it. The camera flashed to the teacher sitting at her desk, texting on her cellphone and shopping for shoes on the computer.

“Try again,” the teacher said.

“I can’t,” she answered, and the scene ended.

The scene opens “Won’t Back Down,” a new film by Walden Media, the same company that produced the 2010 documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” which extolled charter schools. The advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence held a private advance screening of the movie for its members, all city teachers, Wednesday night at the Regal Cinemas in Union Square.

“Won’t Back Down” riffs off real-life parents’ efforts to turn a struggling California school into a non-unionized charter school.

The drama has come under scrutiny as it approaches its Sept. 28 release because of its harsh, and sometimes inaccurate, treatment of teachers unions. “This fictional portrayal, which makes the unions the culprit for all of the problems facing our schools, is divisive and demoralizes millions of great teachers,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten in a statement last month.

“We cannot pretend there’s not a debate around this movie,” said E4E’s New York Executive Director Jonathan Schleifer to the crowd before the movie began. “That’s why you’re here – you want to be informed.”

Sydney Morris, E4E’s co-founder and chief executive director, warned the crowd that the story told in the movie didn’t accurately mirror real events.

“It’s not in any way a perfect depiction of reality,” she said. “But it is a bold depiction of teachers as change agents — it shows what teacher empowerment and parent involvement could and should look like.”

“Won’t Back Down” is a film about a desperate mother, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is too poor to move her dyslexic daughter out of a failing school in Pennsylvania. In her attempt to find another options, she learns about the state’s “Fail Safe Law,” which is very loosely based on California’s “Parent Trigger Law.”

Passed in early 2010, Parent Trigger Law gave parents the right to take charge of a failing school by gathering petition signatures from at least 50 percent of the school’s parent population. Advocates heralded it as empowering parents to lead school reform efforts. But critics charged that the law privileges savvier parents, and also benefits private corporations that could gain control over the management of public schools.

Currently, 20 states have some kind of trigger law on the table, but New York is not among them. Efforts to enact a bill here have gained little traction.

In the movie, the law is different: It bringing teachers into the equation. Under the “Fail Safe Law,” if 50 percent of parents and 50 percent of teachers at a struggling school sign a petition, submit a 400-page proposal, and get approval from the school board, they can take their over the school.

But at Gyllenhaal’s daughter’s school— where the principal enlists staff to fudge attendance records and pass students illicitly — few teachers want to sign on. Some are portrayed as ineffective and disengaged, holding on to their jobs only because they have tenure. Others know the system is broken but are too afraid of losing their jobs to come forward.

And the union is the real obstacle, seeing the trigger law as a direct threat to its existence and battling tooth and nail against the coalition that aims to take advantage of the option. At one point, the head of the union says, “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, we will start advocating for the interests of school children.”

The harsh portrayal did not sit well with the teachers in the audience. Educators 4 Excellence is aimed at advancing teacher voice in education policy, and some of its members are active in the United Federation of Teachers, even though they do not always agree with traditional union policy positions.

Susan Bovet, a high school English teacher in her early sixties, said she was dismayed by the movie’s depiction of the union.

“The union wants us to have better schools,” she said. “No one in their right mind would act like that — employees of unions are no doubt parents and former teachers themselves.”

Other teachers echoed her sentiments as they gathered to socialize after the movie, with several saying that it portrayed the union leaders as “caricatures.”

Yet this didn’t stop them from finding some value in the movie.

Andrew Karas, a fifth grade teacher at P.S. 86 in the Bronx, said that while the movie was obviously dramatized, many of the characters felt real to him. He related to a teacher named Rosie Perez who wanted to effect change but was afraid.

“As a teacher you get way more than you can handle put on your plate,” he said. “Anything outside of your classroom is too much to handle — it’s the normal response of someone who is overworked.” But in the end, Karas said, good teachers are always going to do what’s best for their students.

Other teachers said they thought the movie illuminated some of the challenges they face when dealing with forces outside of their control, such as bureaucracy, ineffective school leaders, or low levels of parent involvement.

“E4E is about helping teachers become informed about the issues, coming up with ideas, and then advocating for them,” Morris said. “Teachers are here having conversations about the issues in the film and talking about what they would do if they could change a school. That’s the indicator that the event was a success.”

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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