Democrats and school union groups across the state of Colorado are hosting viewings of an ersatz documentary by liberal activist, Brian Malone. The film, titled “The Reformers,” is both an extended-cut anti-school reform campaign ad and an attack piece which portrays the conservative Douglas County Colorado School Board (DCSB) as cruel, uncaring bullies who are enraging parents, harming students, and driving away teachers “in droves.”
“The Reformers” comes off like an overwrought whinefest built on emotional testimonies by liberal activists and angry union members, but with little actual data supporting the assertion that the DCSB is destroying Dougco schools. To add to the histrionics, Malone employs the hilarious device of interviewing individuals, supposedly teachers from Dougco, hidden in shadowy silhouettes with electronically distorted voices. Who would have thunk that the DCSB was composed of drug-cartel hit men and Islamic terrorist Infidel hunters?
Brian Malone is a little confused as well about “The Reformers.” It is marketed as a “documentary” but he himself admits in an email to me that it’s an op-ed. The truth is, Malone pieces together testimony and footage that manages to paint the forward-thinking DSCB as cold-blooded ogres, and encourages the anti-school reform forces to get out the vote this November, but he COMPLETELY OMITS the data that shows the great successes and advancements brought about by the DCSB.
Let’s look at the premises depicted in Malone’s op-edumentary, to which I shall refer as “Fear and Loathing in Douglas County.”
First Premise: Fear and Loathing of Capitalism:
In the narration, Malone himself asks, “What is the role of public schools? Do we want to hand over our schools to for-profit corporations?”, laying groundwork for the premise that school-reform is the equivalent of turning public education over to corporate fat cats.
Malone uses the opinions of four “educational experts” to support his anti-school reform premises:
- Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College, author of “Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More” and “The Costs of Living: How Market Freedom Erodes the Best Things in Life,” two decidedly anti-free market books, is a professor of psychology who believes that humans become confused with offered too many choices in the marketplace. (I wonder if he would agree that choice is confusing when it comes to “reproductive rights?”) Schwartz, when arguing against the free-market model in education, asserts that people become “confused” if they have too many options from which to choose. In the film he says, “The customers don’t know enough to make intelligent choices…you end up with a million suckers.” Translation: School-reform and choice are bad because people are too stupid to know what’s good for them and their kids.
- The “Two Julies” are professors of education from the University of Wisconsin who allegedly research the negative “effects of education reform.” The Two Julies portray school-reform, where parents can shop for educational options in a free-market model, as cold and cruel. They take offense at the idea that parents and students may be considered “consumers” when it comes to educational services. The Two Julies also banter back and forth, asserting that they don’t want to live in the kind of world where people must make decisions about their own children. One of them says to the other, “The kind of world I want to live in means she’s going to take care of my kids and I’m going to take care of hers.” Translation: Only meanies who don’t care about children support school reform.
- Chris Tienken, author of “The School Reform Landscape: Fraud Myths and Lies,” is also decidedly anti-free market in his take on Dougco school reforms. In the film Tienken asserts that “Neo-Liberal” values, which embrace free-markets, will make education vulnerable to “profiteers.”
Appealing to the Left’s generalized hatred of Ronald Reagan–a strong supporter of public education, by the way– Malone cites “A Nation at Risk,” the study on public education commissioned by the Reagan Administration, as the apparatus which prompted the school reform movement. The film fails to fully explore the alarming data in “A Nation at Risk” which in 1983 justified a national effort to fix a failing system.
Malone showcases four high school students from Dougco, one of whom is a male wearing a t-shirt bearing the image of the murderous, Communist revolutionary, Che Guevara. Among the students, who are all politically to the left, is one young lady who, protesting the reforms in Dougco, says, “Thank you for making me work for it all by myself.” Conclusion: Brian Malone loves Collectivism, Socialism, and Big Centralized Government, but hates Ronald Reagan.
Second Premise: Fear and Loathing of Fear and Loathing:
Malone claims that he interviewed over 30 Dougco teachers for his op-edumentary, and that only one, Brian White, a high school teacher (liberal activist), had the courage to show his face. The rest of the interviews depict speakers hidden in black silhouette, and yes, with electronically distorted voices. The interviewees use terms like “culture of fear,” “we’re afraid,” “we don’t know what will happen to our jobs with this school board,” “teachers are intimidated,” and “Big Brother.”
“The Reformers” attempts to cast an umbra of suspicion on Dougco’s Christian schools, Valor Christian School in particular, insinuating that it has a sinister relationship with DCSB. The voucher program is cast as taking money away from public schools and handing it to “corporate” private and charter, and yes, those icky religious schools. The fact that the money simply follows the students who, with the help of parents, are exercising the power of personal choice–usually at a net savings to the district–is overlooked.
The four high school students featured in the film groan that decreased credit hour requirements are negatively impacting Dougco students, allegedly causing new graduates to be overlooked when applying to colleges. The data, however, does not bear that allegation out.
Third Premise: Fear and Loathing of the Dougco School Board Itself:
Malone asserts that there occurred a mass exodus of teachers from Dougo, citing the fact that 10% of teachers quit the district in 2011, and another 12% in 2012. Those stats are accurate, but the film fails to inform the audience that they align with teacher turnover from previous years . Astonishingly Malone completely omits the fact that the positions opened when a few teachers bolted, attracted thousands of enthusiastic applicants from across the country.
Malone’s op-edumentary uncovers the frightening backgrounds of those on the DCSB, which consists of businessmen, lawyers, and–brace yourselves–an engineer! THE HORROR!
The film claims that high school teachers are unhappy because, instead of working 5 of 7 class periods per day, they now must work 6 of 8 class periods per day, despite the fact that they are still working 8 hours per day. According to the disgruntled in the film, new evaluation forms and administration are creating havoc within the schools and demoralizing teachers. The film contends that evaluation materials purchases are going to support an “Evaluation Industry,”as if CSAP, TCAP and other assessments were invented by DCSB just to punish teachers and make testing companies rich. One union member, when speaking of increased teacher evaluation and student testing says, “What that forces a teacher to do is to look at children as things.” Translation: School reforms make good teachers turn into bad teachers.
Despite the fact that Democrat candidates are regularly funded from outside sources, Malone implies that there is something askew about the fact that The Daniels Fund, Walton Corp, Alex Cranberg and other outside interests have supported the Dougco school-reform candidates. It’s funny that Democrats who, as a practice–think of the recent recall elections in Colorado and the influx of “Bloomberg” money–take money from outside interests, find it unpalatable when it benefits Conservatives. The film instills utter terror in its watchers as it warns that all this “outside money” will go to produce “slick ad campaigns, heavy with emotion and fear.”
Malone bemoans the use of tax-payer dollars to defend the school district against lawsuits, asking the question, “How are tax-payer dollars being used?” However, one of the stars of the movie, liberal activist and serial litigator, Cindy Barnard and her anti-voucher organization, Taxpayers for Public Education, is largely responsible for the lawsuits that have cost Douglas County School District all that money.
Malone again unwittingly steps into the realm of humor as he protests the (not out of the ordinary) rule that the press must stand in the back of the room at DCSB meetings. He complains about the (not out of the ordinary) two minute time limit set for public comments at the meetings. Malone tops off the fear and loathing of the DCSB segment with heart-pounding footage of himself being asked by security to leave a meeting. This incident, according to folks who attended that particular meeting , was instigated by Malone.
Fourth Device: Fear and Loathing of the Truth:
The most remarkable aspect of “The Reformers” is not what it contains, but what it does not contain. The movie attacks cost cutting efforts with Susan Meeks, progressive activist, saying “It’s our opinion that schools have been weakened because they haven’t received the resources they need.” She fails to cite how they have been weakened.
On one hand the film laments the lack of funding to students and teachers while on the other hand it whines about the “rainy day” surplus accrued by the school district. The film howls about school funding cuts of $4 million, but shows no evidence that streamlining has harmed students or teachers.
The film contends against a voucher program in Douglas County by alluding to the lack of alternatives from which students can choose. It cites several charter and private schools in the area, but, according to the makers of the film, that is simply not enough choice. Since Malone is clearly anti-school choice, I suppose limited choice, to him, is a good excuse to lobby for no choice at all. (I’m confused too.) Malone fails to show evidence of how a limited number of extra-district options is harmful to students receiving voucher scholarships.
Malone omits an April 2013 Magellan Strategies study that shows significant majority support in Dougco for reforms initiated by the DCSB.
Most telling of all is that “The Reformers” COMPLETELY OMITS the achievement metrics from Dougco’s high schools (see below) which graphically illustrate the recent successes and advancements in academic achievement and college readiness driven by the new DCSB.
The clash between the Douglas County School Board and its foes is fundamental. Malone and those who support his anti-reform efforts don’t believe in choice, diversity or sustainability. They fear the choices offered by free-market competition in education. They fear diversity of thought and resources when it comes to what parents and students can choose from. They fear the sustainability of cost-cutting measures that lead to more streamlined services. And, ironically, folks who would call themselves progressive, fear change.
These are times when budgets, of necessity, must be reined in. Reality has caught up with public education. Fear and loathing of reform, innovation, and free-market competition, and attempts by anti-reformers like Brian Malone and teachers unions, to cling to a 20th Century mode of operation, will surely result in harm to the learners of the 21st Century.