“Won’t Back Down” fuels education reform wars

Liz SullivanLiz Sullivan is an OUSD grandparent, a former teacher and a community organizer. The views expressed in this article are her own.

“Won’t Back Down” will be released in theaters on September 28, but the new film is already stirring up controversy. Produced by the team who brought us “Waiting for Superman,” the movie stars Maggie Gyllanhaal and Viola Davis as two moms who use a “parent trigger” law to turn around a failing school. Michelle Rhee screened the movie at the Democratic and Republican Conventions, and Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, attacked the film in a press release, saying: “…the movie resorts to falsehoods and anti-union stereotypes.” The film is the latest dust up in the school reform wars. One side blames teachers’ unions for blocking change, and the other side characterizes school reform as a corporate privatization scheme.

The movie’s story line should feel familiar to local folks. Oakland’s parents and teachers have created scores of new schools over the last decade. Yet school reform Oakland-style does not fit easily into the overheated narratives competing on the national stage. The rhetoric of school reform resorts to gross oversimplifications that play well to a crowd. The reality of school reform involves real people navigating a marvelously complex world.

I have seen Oakland parents and teachers come together to start new schools dozens of times, and I have witnessed first hand the accomplishments of traditional schools that are dramatically improving outcomes for all students. I’ve learned that the answers lie within our reach. We know what to do, and we can do it, if the public will for change exists. Organized communities have been key to Oakland’s success: school reform started long before the billionaire philanthropists arrived, and continued long after they left.

I raised my family in the heartlands of Oakland, where traditional schools and new schools are triumphing with students from high poverty, high crime neighborhoods. Something wonderful happens when families who live and work in the blocks surrounding a school come to see the school as their most important public asset—a vehicle for personal and communal transformation.

From 2000 to 2010, more than 80 new schools were created in Oakland, one-third as independent charters, and two-thirds as new, small, autonomous schools within the district, working under the teachers’ union contract. Most of the new schools succeeded and some failed, but all have contributed to a dramatic shift in the way people think about Oakland’s kids. Now grade-level achievement is the expectation, and childhood poverty is seen as an obstacle that can be overcome. Schools serving low-income students match the performance of schools in wealthy neighborhoods when committed educators and families unite around a shared vision and pedagogy, and when the district joins with community partners to provide necessary support services.

The creation of new schools has caused tension with the union, especially over the placement of teachers who were required to reapply for their jobs. This tension continues even now, as school closures force dozens of teachers to shift to different schools. In a perfect world, all teachers within a district would meet a similar level of mastery, so that the placement of teachers would not be an issue. I have seen two California districts where this is the case: Poway and San Juan. In these districts the unions have taken responsibility for supporting and evaluating new teachers and struggling veteran teachers. Union leaders believe that the quality of the teaching profession should not be left in the hands of those who no longer practice the profession.

The school reform experience in Oakland suggests that community has a vital role to play in interrupting patterns of failure for low-income children of color. Just as whole communities have re-envisioned local schools, perhaps teachers can re-envision their union so that it takes responsibility for an area where management has struggled: teacher development. But will creative proposals for change be heard through the polarized din of union bashing and privatization conspiracies? I’m afraid that the release of “Wont’ Back Down,” just made the conversation a little harder.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Jim Mordecai

    Liz Sullivan:

    You write: “The creation of new schools has caused tension with the union, especially over the placement of teachers who were required to reapply for their jobs. This tension continues even now, as school closures force dozens of teachers to shift to different schools.”

    But, you leave out that school closures were driven, in part, by the 40 non-union corporate charter schools your worked to create. Are you surprised that creating 40 charter schools in Oakland wouldn’t create tension with the unions that see good union jobs being destroyed?

    And, many of those lost union jobs came from the Oakland middle class that became part of the ever shrinking middle class in this economic depression.

    What you claim is a victory for the community neighborhoods of color in creating charter schools has been a lot of community authority. These 30 plus charter schools are all governed differently but alike in that they are run by a corporate board and not democratically accountable to the electorate.

    Some charters like KIPP and Aspire are linked to leadership outside of Oakland and others are but a single corporate board. And, we have the extraordinary case of one Oakland charter school, Bay Area Technology linked to a Turkish Imam’s religious followers with 140 plus charter schools across USA.

    The relationshi of charter school governance to parents is like the relatonship of a parent to a child. Like a child parents can be asked but a parent can decide to respond or not. Unlike an elected school board the charter school community does not have a legal right to vote for a charter governing board. charter schools are in the community by not governed by the community.

    The first Oakland charter school was backed by OCO: the Oakland Charter Academy. It has been hugely successful in academic achievement but it left behind the vision of its founders to promote bilingual and Hispanic culture. Its school curriculum was switch to a back to basics, mastery of State standards by the school’s principal and his supporters on the governing board. There was not a community vote but control of the governing board that instituted that change.

    Many will say so what as the undemocratic corporate board created extraordinary academic achievements since 2004.

    However, critics will say that public schools paid by taxpayers’ money should not be turned over to corporate management. That din Liz Sullivan is a cry for maintaining public education in opposition to corporately managed charter schools.

    Jim Mordecai

  • http://www.labcoakland.org Jim Hopkins

    Thanks for the insight, wisdom and courage you display in addressing an issue that is both essential to the well being of our community and an emotional trigger.

    The key word in public education reform is complexity. There is no one size fits all answer, no one prescription which will restore everyone’s vision.

    In each of the potential approaches to improving our schools the involvement of the stakeholders – parents, teachers, students, administrators, and community leaders is key. If it can be shown that the stakeholders are truly involved in crafting a plan for a better school I think it is best to give that plan a chance to succeed before attacking it because it does not conform to our preferred organizational model.

    Again, thanks for taking a stand for a middle road, and for being honest in admitting that the way forward consists of many complex decisions and many difficult discussions.

    Jim Hopkins

  • Lillian Lopez

    As a parent who was involved with the reform efforts in Oakland, I welcome the dialogue the movie inspires. Parents care about students, not about adult agendas. Until parents stand up and say “enough,” others will continue to make decisions about the education of our children. I encourage parents to watch the movie and decide for yourselves if it rings true. If so, then organize to improve public education in Oakland and across the Nation.
    Parents – chime in on the blog. We have to make sure that our concerns and opinions are expressed. Let’s not be shouted down by special interests.

  • Lillian Lopez

    Teacher’s union leadership needs to listen to and be willing to work with parents and teachers to make positive changes that improve educational outcomes. If they don’t, parents will continue to choose alternatives outside of unionized school districts. I’m afraid that OUSD will eventually become a district of charter schools.

  • Jim Mordecai

    Ms. Lillian Lopez:

    Parent is a large group that even includes me. Now I belong to a subset of that group called grandparent so I am looking at the future as my children are raised and adults.

    “Parents care about students, not about adult agendas.” Nice try to divide the world into two agendas and you define yourself as part of the caring agenda.

    O.K. I’ll play and speak to an adult agenda that calls for democratic public education system. It isn’t that you care about students more than me. Or, I care more about the students of Oakland Public Schools than you. Remember you supported the “reform” for removing students from the public school system.

    The issue is what adult agenda do you support and what adult agenda do I support. You have supported privatization of public education with corporate charter boards making decisions about how public tax money is spent in private. I support school boards elected by the public serving all students?

    “I encourage parents to watch the movie to see if it “rings true”. The din Ms. Sullivan referred to must had confused you as this is not a documentary but a fictional account of something that never happened.

    And, of course this movie is part of an adult agenda to “reform” public education to benefit the privatizers. But, as a parent you say you reject adult agendas, you seem guilty of promoting a special interest and in words contradicting yourself.

    As Churchill referred to democracy as something to the effect it is the worse possible way to govern except all the others, I reject governing public education by corporate boards as inferior to democratic governing school boards. And, I therefore reject a film advocating for parent trigger law that leaves behind democratically elected school boards and replaces them with undemocratic corporate governing boards.

    Jim Mordecai

  • J.R.

    Let me tell you what upsets my parent group(which is BTW truly democratic, we choose to meet and discuss issues, and even disagree slightly on perspective). Dealing with unions is like dealing with the mafia(not very democratic). Using political muscle the unions had certain conditions codified in law.

    1. In 1975 CTA became sole supplier of teachers for public schools(can you say undemocratic monopoly). Furthermore as a condition of employment teachers must pay an agency fee + dues(not very democratic).

    2. The dues(extracted from taxpayers before teachers ever see them) are funneled to PAC’s who donate heavily(tens of millions) to political candidates or ballot initiatives that are beneficial to the union and it’s members.

    All in all, it’s not unlike the mafia to the shopkeeper “you need protection” , and the shopkeeper says “no, I don’t” and the mafioso knocks over a aisle of goods and says emphatically ” YES, believe ME, YOU DO!

    As taxpayers we are outside the process of bargaining(which is strange in itself because you have on either side of the table people who are funded and supported by taxes. We have to trust that they will do the right thing, and the proof is evident how that ended up. They’ve got pay, perks, and pensions and the taxpayer has pandemonium, and a massive debt burden.

  • oaklandedlandscape

    “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” – Shanker

    Great schools, charters or district, are what we need to fight for. We know how to do it. Union contract makes it virtually impossible. Look at recent conversions. There will be more until OEA decides to find new leadership that is open to dialogue and willing to work with Tony and the board on a new contract that is reasonable. See the film. BTW – charters teachers are not forced to work at their schools. It’s a choice. Ask one.

  • Nontcair

    Something wonderful happens when families who live and work in the blocks surrounding a school come to see the school as their most important public asset

    To some people public education is like a *religion*.

    Q) What do you call what happens when other families in the vicinity see that school as akin to the city dump?

    A) Collateral damage.

  • Nontcair

    One side blames teachers’ unions for blocking change, and the other side characterizes school reform as a corporate privatization scheme.

    Once again we find the liberal socialists battling the conservative socialists, with the taxpayers stuck in the middle, getting blown to bits as ..

    collateral damage.

  • Murphy’s Law

    Are you serious….

    >>>“Parents care about students, not about adult agendas.” Nice try to divide the world into two agendas and you define yourself as part of the caring agenda<<<

    This response is so detached from parent reality. All the yelling about privatization vs union bashing makes me sick.

    Parents don't have to align ourselves with you. We are frustrated, though, when you fight against things that are against our children's best interest.

    We are even more frustrated when you union spokespeople "explain" that their best interest is the same as our children's best interest. It is a patronizing approach that has gone on for a very long time.

    You assume to know what's best for society's children. However, the union says they can't teach those children because of society. Make up your mind.

  • Murphy’s Law

    Who are we listening to? Why is Jim Mordecai giving the union position on almost all issues without other voices stepping up? Parents need to have a wake up call. A quick google found a video that, in my humble opinion, should exclude Mr. Mordecai from being taken seriously in the civil dialogue.

    What connected, sane mind uses “pornography” as a way to explain how we recognize good teaching. And what does it say about the audience that sits and listens to this? Saying this is the only comparison that comes to mind at that late hour is even scarier… In other words, ~it’s getting late and my filter is down so the only thing I can think of that relates to this discussion is pornography~. unbelieveable. Who would think of such a comparison? Who says that? What kind of mind goes there because “it’s late”? No wonder the arguments often seem seedy, pontificatory, and disconnected.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83vaOOK82qo (first 30 seconds)

    If I’m the union, I would make sure that other voices are part of the public conversation in board meetings and on blogs.

    It’s actually scary in the sense that we really don’t know the people teaching our children. We don’t know what they believe and are involved in. When that door closes at 8:30am, our children are completely at their mercy. We have to trust the adults in the schools even when there are red flags all around us.

  • J.R.

    Wow, before seeing the clip I thought your reservations were in regard to Mr.Mordecai’s comment’s before the school board on the topic of charter teachers,background checks and sexual abuse in the classroom. Who knew?

  • Jim Mordecai


    You are right, I don’t speak for the Oakland Teacher union. Trish Gorham is the spokes person for the OEA.
    And, each school sites elects representatives and those site representatives meet once a month to take policy positions by majority vote.

    As a current Oakland substitute and OEA member I will speak at School Board meetings in support of OEA positions.

    However, most of the time at School Board meetings I am speaking as an individual, an Oakland property owner contributing taxes to the public schools and to my regret charter schools. I also read the Board agenda items and speak out as to what I think of how the District School Board has and should spend its money. As a 35-year retired Oakland teacher I have experience to put the decisions of the School Board in a personal context based on having been in the classroom under different Oakland administrations. I am not an official of the OEA but I am one of several OEA elected representatives to CTA State Council, the policy making body of California Teachers Association, and an OEA elected representative to the Alameda County Labor Council.

    My elected offices do NOT make me a spokes person for OEA or the Labor Council. These affiliations certainly influence and shape my view along with my experience as a classroom teacher. Yet, most of the time I speak or post on this blog, as an independent person with a personal view.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Jim Mordecai


    In posting 11 you mention my comments before the school board in regrading to the topic of charter teachers, background checks, and sexual abuse in the classroom.”

    Penn State demonstrated that everyone should be concerned with the topic of institutions and reviewing their policies on reporting abuse.

    I made very clear that my view on the topic of charter schools and the opportunity for sexual abuse not being reported was my personal view. By personal view I was speaking as an individual that had been advised by friends NOT to address the topic.

    And, in referencing my comments you mentioned teachers and background checks. But, teachers both public school teachers and charter school teachers in California have background checks. One point I was making was under charter school law the corporate board members and the founders of charter schools have not background check. In fact, there is no qualification for creating a charter school. As in the case of the 140 plus Turkish Imam Gulen’s charter schools none of the founders have to be American, they can be citizens of Turkey. Also, in California there is no requirement to reveal a criminal record when applying for a charter let alone a background check by the organization sponsoring creation of a charter school. Finally, in practice I doubt if it would happen, but if a charter applicant turned out to have a criminal record, that is not a legal reason for a governing board to reject a charter application.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Nontcair

    The pro-union comments above show why it’s a good idea to disqualify public employees, union members and retirees from voting in civil elections.

    Article 2 §4 already disenfranchises certified crazies and convicted felons serving time, ie those who do not have our best interest at heart.

    If a private union buys a controlling interest in a firm that I am a stockholder in, I can SELL my shares in less time than it will take you to read this comment.

    When a public union takes control of a legislative branch it’s not so easy for me to pack up my things, sell my house, and move to another locale — especially when so many other places are plagued by public union abuses also.

  • J.R.

    Like I have always said “throw out or change what does not work, public or charters”.One of the best aspects of charters is their ability to hold teachers accountable. Charters would have never paid Mark Berndt off to leave his position, and this cretin will draw a pension besides that. All those cases of public school teachers run amok, and background checks didn’t help those kids or the taxpayers.



  • Jim Mordecai


    In the case of this Oakland charter school principal posted below, according to the reporter, the Aspire governing board moved out the Principal because of the scandal but they didn’t report the scandal to authorities. Failure to report suspected child abuse makes all children less safe.

    Teachers and school personnel are mandated reporters but public and charter school governing boards are not.

    Perhaps the libertarians that post to this blog will argue against expansion of government regulation to include the definition child abuse manditory reporters to include school boards and corporate charter governing boards.

    I feel the Aspire decision makers should have been held accountable for not making a report. But, if they are not included under the law in the category of child abuse mandatory reporter, they cannot be held accountable under current law.


    Jim Mordecai

  • J.R.

    Anyone that has anything to do with educating children should put the kids first, and defend the children against abuse or be shut down, end of story.

  • Jim Mordecai


    In the report I posted the Principal was dismissed but what didn’t seem right is that the scandal was dealt with inappropriately because besides being dismissed the Principal’s Aspire superiors should have immediately reported their concern that child abuse had taken place to the authorities to investigate.

    But, because individuals from the Aspire charter school corporate governance are likely not administers or teachers, I believe there role as governance is not listed under California state law as a mandated child abuse reporter.

    Therefore, there probably isn’t a means for holding Aspire governance people with knowledge of the report(s) of possible child abuse associated with the Aspire principal accountable for not reporting the suspected child abuse to authorities.

    I want the adults that abuse children held accountable and kept away from all children. And, I want the adults that are mandatory child abuse reporters and that had knowledge, or had reasonable basis for suspecting abuse, to also be held accountable and punished when they didn’t report their suspicions.

    Without enforcement of the law’s penalties for failure of mandated child abuse reporters’ to report abuse, I believe that everything is NOT being done to protect children in both public schools and charter schools.

    Jim Mordecai

  • http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/2012/02/three-handy-pages-with-facts-about.html Sharon

    For the uninitiated, “Won’t Back Down” is a piece of fictional propaganda produced by Walden Media a company owned by an extremist right wing conservative billionaire. Walden also co-produced the anti-teacher, anti-public school documentary propaganda film “Waiting for Superman.” The chief of Walden told reporters that WBD was made because “We realized the inherent limitations of the documentary format [i.e. W4S].” There is a specific message this company is trying to get out, and this film was made to deliver propaganda, not just entertainment.

    The Parent Trigger was originated in California by an astroturf group formed by a SoCal charter school chain. It was then picked up by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a highly controversial organization that writes model legislation for right wing politicians. There were a number of news reports this past year about how more and more corporate backers were bowing out of ALEC in an effort to distance themselves from it. This is because ALEC was behind the “Stand Your Ground” legislation in a number of states, including Florida, where their legislation permitted George Zimmerman to go free after killing Trayvon Martin.

    PR Watch, an effort by The Center for Media and Democracy, wrote a paper that further describes the connections: “’Won’t Back Down’ Film Pushes ALEC Parent Trigger Proposal”

    Concerned about the origin of ‘parent tricker’ legislation, its ties to right wing public school privatization efforts, Parents Across America produced a toolkit with more information about what is really going on, along with proposals for other options.

    WBD is just one of many well-funded, highly-coordinated efforts being conducted by plutocrats and using manipulation tactics to get concerned American parents to do their dirty work of privatizing a significant part of what remains of the public sector. Read Diane Ravitch. Read “Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Klein. Listen to Chris Hedges:

  • Nontcair

    No expansion of “must report”. Indeed, we need to eliminate the regulation altogether.

    Trust in people of good conscience.

    The last thing public education needs is even more qualifications for “certification” (protectionism).

  • J.R.

    So you just brush aside the fact that parents are truly concerned with the reality that in many districts kids are not being well educated. You wish to make political the fact that many districts have struggled for decades, when California was once at the top of the educational heap. You neglect the fact that graduation rates are(and have been) for years abysmally low. Where were you ten,twenty,thirty years ago? Was it OK because paychecks and pensions weren’t in peril like they are now? I could care less about corporate anything, but the central issue is the the education system is not preparing our kids well, and we are paying through the nose for the privilege(those of us that actually contribute taxes from outside the river of tax money. We have 30+% of the US population of public assistance recipients, and a huge number of illegal transplants whose parents don’t pay for their children’s education. Those are just a few of the massive problems we face.

  • J.R.

    One more question, “how does accepting the fact that corporatism of the education system(or whatever you choose to call it)is real, let the education system off the hook and excuse the poor job that they have done collectively”?

  • Jim Mordecai


    Like Reagan said about the Soviets, trust but verify. The issue here is not teacher certification but whether workers in public and private institutions having access to children understanding that the government will punish them if they don’t act and report suspected child abuse.

    California law has a penalty for all mandated reporters of child abuse and I advocate that that law be enforced. When an individual charged with suspicion of committing child abuse is investigated and during the subsequent investigation of the abuse charge individuals are found not to have fulfill their duty as mandated reporters to report suspected child abuse, those that failed to report ought to be punished under the law.

    Certificate, or not certificated, teachers, and others working with children, are already classified as mandated reporters. What I am advocating is expanding the category of mandated reports to include the governing boards of school boards and the corporate governing boards of charter schools.

    I understand that you want to “eliminate” mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse completely and rely on a “trust in people of good conscience”. I am not sure that the majority of voters would agree with your position of eliminating the law requiring mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse by institutions that work with children.

    But, neither one of us will know how the public feels unless either the public, or its representatives, vote on either my advocacy of expanding the category of mandated reporters, and/or votes to eliminate the curent law requiring mandated reporters of suspected child abuse.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Nontcair

    We know that “must report” is just code for more jobs for bureaucrats and more cover for child molestors.

    Look what happend at Penn St.

  • Nontcair

    How many Secret Service bureaucrats are working full-time on investigating the idle threats made by psych cases to their shrinks.

    Sooner or later this “must report” imperative will turn us all into either government spies or felons.

  • http://www.parentsacrossamerica.org CarolineSF

    Some responses to points above:

    California was at the top of the educational heap before Prop. 13 harmed school funding. Opponents of Prop. 13 (who included Republicans, corporations and generally mainstream voices) at the time predicted that it would cause our schools and infrastructure to slide. Our schools and infrastructure have slid, as predicted, but many voices NOW claim that isn’t the reason. Yes. It was predicted and it occurred as predicted. Nobody gets to change the story now and claim it’s not about funding.

    The implication that graduation rates have slid, by the way, is inaccurate. Fewer than half of all students graduated from high school in past times. The rate only reached as high as 50% nationwide around World War II. It continued to climb till the 1970s and has stuck at about the same point since then, with slight bumps up and down. It’s false to claim or imply that the graduation rate has dropped.

    Speaking of calling out falsehoods, this is a notorious one too: “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” – Shanker — There is no confirmation anywhere that Shanker said this, and those who knew him, including his widow, heatedly declare that he would never have made such a vile remark.

  • oaklandedlandscape

    If you are the parent of a student that is stuck in a high school with > 50% drop out rate (latino or african american), what advice would you give yourself. The school is also plagued with violence and drugs. The charters are full. Sorry. What would you do?

  • J.R.

    The facts and numbers say different. You’ll excuse me if I don’t take your word for it, but I would rather see numbers and results as proof.




    No doubt you will declare these number invalid because you are sure there is a conspiracy afoot.

    BTW, I never did see your opinion on 30+ percent welfare and the immigration problem which taxpayers have to cover the cost of?

    This isn’t quite like the other site where your opinion carries weight, lets see some actual data via links and or studies.

    It is true prop 13 did not help matters, but it did not cost us even remotely what pensions are costing us now. That is a fact.

  • J.R.


    Another point regarding the differences in the quality of education. Why are we having to remediate so many kids in high school and college to teach them what they should have already learned?



  • Nontcair

    How dare those who pay the taxes express their wills by voting FOR Prop 13 and AGAINST Prop 30?

    The reason kids need to stay in school is so that they can go on to college.

    It doesn’t matter how little the kids learn along the way. The colleges stand ready to provide *remedial* instruction.

    How many times must taxpayers pay to teach Johnny how to read?

  • http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/2012/02/three-handy-pages-with-facts-about.html Sharon
  • Katy Murphy

    Wow. Reviews that rotten actually pique my curiosity. I wonder what my favorite film critics — Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky — have to say about it.

  • J.R.

    Movies(in themselves, do not matter)what matters is the message that we need to do better in raising and teaching our children. If you are intimidated by that, or scared by that it seems as you might have selected the wrong path in life as a parent or teacher. This is not a game, this is important and children’s future’s(productive or not) are at stake here. I could care less about corporations or unions, I stand beside the kids.

  • http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/2012/02/three-handy-pages-with-facts-about.html Sharon

    It turns out that “Won’t Back Down” ended up at the very TOP of the list of films in the same category for the WORST opening weekend of ALL time. The fact that so many reviewers saw straight through to its smarmy propaganda — and could still have their reviews widely published — must be a testament to their own editorial independence.

  • J.R.

    Unfortunately or fortunately(if you are a student,teacher or parent) we can see for ourselves that in many places the school system is failing and or mediocre. We do not need a movie to either validate or invalidate that fact! Hollywood is full of hyperbole, but out here in the real world we see clearly what has been taking place for decades. If you try and dissuade deny and or deflect from the poor education results here in OUSD that is in fact propaganda.