“Bad Education” is a frustrating movie to watch as a public school teacher.
It does a fine job telling the true story of a wealthy New York district where administrators stole millions of dollars for themselves.
But it ignores the far more frequent waste and malfeasance caused by school privatization, high stakes testing and runaway ed tech.
Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but there is no subject more political than public schools.
During the current Coronavirus pandemic, teachers and schools are finally getting some respect from people who are trying to “home school” their own kids while the nation’s classrooms are shuttered.
But education budgets are still routinely slashed, and every policymaker from Betsy DeVos to Barack Obama still thinks there is nothing better than closing public schools and replacing them with charter and/or voucher schools.
Pundits continually decry low test scores while applauding every means to increase racial and economic segregation. They push every policy to increase the school to prison pipeline for black and brown students.
And now HBO drops this movie about Rosalyn School District Superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) who embezzled $11 million from taxpayers.
What happened in Rosalyn was scandalous. But it’s an outlier.
Such misappropriation and outright theft rarely happens at public schools. After all, the records are all public. It just takes someone to check up.
For REAL theft you have to go to charter and voucher schools where the law literally allows them to spend our money without most of that public oversight.
Viewers like me from Pennsylvania still remember Nick Trombetta. The founder and former CEO of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School stole a similar sum (at least $8 million), and got much less prison time (20 months vs. Tassone who served 3 years). Trombetta used taxpayer dollars to buy a$300,000 private jet for goodness sake! He bought a $933,000 condo in Florida! He bought $180,000 houses for his girlfriend and mother in Ohio. He did all this and more – and his lawyers got the charges down to tax evasion! Why is there no movie about THAT?
Or how about June Brown?
As the head of Agora Cyber Charter School, which was part of the K12 Inc. charter empire, she was indicted for stealing $6.5 million from taxpayers. She and her executives were indicted on 62 counts of wire fraud, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. She had a reputation for claiming large salaries and filing suits against parents who questioned her.
Where’s that movie?
The history of charter schools reads like a who’s who of hucksters and thieves!
Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) the largest charter school in Ohio was forced to shut down and auction off all its taxpayer funded property because administrators grossly inflated its students body of 12,000 online students to the state.
New Jersey charter schools spent as much as $800 million of taxpayer dollars to buy property that they then charged taxpayers additional money to rent from the charter schools, according to an IRS investigation.
The Network for Public Education published a report in 2019 detailing more than $1 billion in federal dollars misappropriated by charters – including hundreds of millions spent on charters that never even opened or that closed soon after opening.
I think those would make good movies. Don’t you?
But let’s not forget the other vulture industries that prey on our public school system without providing much of value in return.
If you want REAL fraud, you have to go to the standardized testing and ed tech industry sucking away billions or taxpayer dollars while providing services that are either unnecessary or downright destructive.
Why do we give every public school child high stakes tests in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school? Because the federal government says so.
These tests don’t tell us how well students are doing in school. We have at least 180 days of classroom grades that tell us that.
These tests taken over a period of a few days tell us what the corporation making them thinks is important. And they nearly always show that richer kids are doing better than poorer kids, and that whiter kids are somehow “smarter” than blacker kids.
And for this prized data we pay billions of dollars to big businesses every year.
It’s one of the largest captive markets in existence. That’s some 50.4 million children forced to take standardized assessments. The largest such corporation, Pearson, boasts profits of $9 billion annually. It’s largest competitor, CBT/ McGraw-Hill, makes $2 billion annually. Others include Education Testing Services and Riverside Publishing better known through its parent company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
If many of these companies sound like book publishers, that’s because they are or their parent companies are. And that’s no coincidence. It’s another way they bolster their own market.
Not only do many of these testing corporations make, provide and score standardized assessments, they make and provide the remedial resources used to help students pass.
So if your students are having difficulty passing the state test, often the same company has a series of workbooks or a software package to help remediate them. It’s a good business model. Cash in before kids take the test. Cash in when they take it. And if kids fail, cash in again to remediate them.
Ever wonder why our test scores are so low? Because it’s profitable! The money is all on the side of failure, not success. In fact, from an economic point of view, there is a disincentive to succeed. Not for teachers and students, but for the people who make and grade the tests.
In fact, when I sat down to watch “Bad Education” I thought it was going to be about high stakes testing cheating scandals. I thought it was going to be about how the pressure to have students score well on the tests have in some cases resulted in teachers and/or administrators changing answers to inflate the scores.
But no. That’s not mentioned at all. There’s talk about test scores but their value is never questioned for one second.
Hugh Jackman’s superintendent dreams of leading his schools from getting the 4th highest test scores to having the 1st highest. But nowhere does anyone mention how these tests were literally developed by Nazi eugenicists or how they have been challenged countless times for violating children’s civil rights or even the sizable parent-led opt out movement in the same New York suburbs where the film takes place.
Okay. Maybe I AM being too sensitive.
The film does seem to have a theme about how we expect everything from schools and teachers and don’t reward them well enough. But this is undercut by the obvious villainy of people who use that discrepancy to take advantage of the trust the public has placed in them.
Public schools rarely act this way.
I fear that many people will miss that point.
Instead it will be more fuel to the fire that public schools are bad and must be replaced.
There’s even a parting shot about Jackman’s character’s pension.
I’m all for drama.
But when filmmakers bend over backward to ignore the elephant in the room, I tend to lose my appetite for popcorn.
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