There is a lot of controversy brewing over the new movie “Won’t Back Down,” which stars Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The story the film tells is about a group of mothers that are so outraged about the low performance of their children’s school that they take it over. The main “bad guy” of the film is the teachers’ union. As a retired Assistant Principal in the New York City Public School System, I can assure you that the union is not the villain.
Yes, there are some bad teachers that need to be replaced, and, yes, the process to remove them is long and arduous. However, the reasons the process is so difficult because while there are teachers that need to be removed, there are also good teachers who are being targeted, either by a particular administrator or by a parent.
During my career, I sometimes had to deal with a teacher who, for want of a better phrase, should not have been teaching. It took a while, but once an arbitrator learned all of the facts, the bad teachers were usually removed. On the other hand, I was once brought before an arbitrator by a principal who wanted to replace me with a tall well built red head, even though my performance was always excellent. When the arbitrator heard my case, I was returned to my position, and I asked to be transferred to a different school. The principal based his case on a technicality of notification about surgery that I had. None of it was performance related. The arbitrator dismissed the case as did the superintendant. Of course, I then asked for a transfer. I was part of the team that had gotten the school off the state list of failing schools.
Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, the national teachers’ union, addresses this issue in the Washington Post in her discussion of “Won’t Back Down.” She is very clear in making her readers understand that the film is pure fiction and has no basis in fact.
Ms. Weingarten, during her career as an educator and as a union leader, had always advocated as much for the students as she has for the teachers. And she states, “After viewing this film, I can tell you that if I had taught at that school, and if I were a member of that union, I would have joined the characters played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis. I would have led the effort to mobilize parents and teachers to turn around that school myself.” The problem, you see, is not the teachers and not the union. There is no one word answer. The filmmaker’s oversimplification – even considering the need for drama and box office revenue – is a problem.
In New York, where non-union charter schools are attempting to replace many unionized public schools, most charters do not do any better than their public counterparts. The charters may have busted the union, but they have not solved the problems.
We are living in difficult times. Money is tight, and there is a contingent among our politicians that believes that the way to make things better is to cut taxes for the wealthy. To accomplish this goal, and the revenue declines that would accompany it, they have to cut services. No government agency is immune. Police officers and firefighters are losing their jobs. There are approximately three hundred thousand, fewer teachers now than there were 8 years ago.
Yes, there are some issues that unions must address, but while those issues are being addressed, the educational administrators must deal with the real problems. These include, over populated classrooms, poverty, ineffective standardized tests and more. Union busting will not solve these problems. Union busting makes good sound bites but hurts the children the union busters say they are fighting for.
In the end, it was unions that gave us health insurance, pensions and fair wages. Those people who are attacking all unions, not just the teachers’ s union, seek to end these protections and create a have and have not society, a society in which 90% of the people will be the have nots.
So, the truth is, not only can’t the teachers back down. We all can’t, indeed, we must not back down. Not for the unions. Not for the Tea Party. But for the ones who count most, the children.