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.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede