Teachers unions differ on approach to controversial education film

“The notion that pop culture creates a caricature that is incorrect, that's wrong,” Weingarten told The Hill, “you have to correct that stereotype.”

Others in union leadership are not as worried by the film. Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association (NEA), said that he has seen the film and wasn’t offended by it.

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“They wrote a script. One of the villains is a union. But it didn't offend me because that's not my union. I have never seen any union like that. It's a make-believe union that doesn't care. My members care. We care. We are doing everything we can to turn around schools, to lead a profession, to make it a real profession,” Van Roekel said.

The union leader even said that he liked the movie.

“I didn't really think I would like it but I did,” Van Roekel said. “It's a great movie. It made me cry three times.”

The NEA leader acknowledged, however, that some of his members are upset by the film.

“I understand my members' reactions who are upset by that movie. I understand that,” Van Roekel said.

Weingarten said she feels the need to speak up concerning the film.

“The movie blames the wrong culprit and I thought the record should be corrected,” Weingarten said. “We may have different philosophies on how we go about this.”

The movie’s supporters are partly why Weingarten is concerned about the film.

The film’s production company is Walden Media, part of conservative financier Philip Anschutz’s entertainment empire. Further, Rhee’s group has been hosting screenings of the film this summer. In addition, the Chamber’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce will launch a cross-country tour this October to screen the film and hold discussion forums, according to a blog post on its website.

“The bad part is that Phil Anshcutz, who has never seen a union that he has liked, who has never seen a progressive cause he has liked, has decided to create the wrong culprit,” Weingarten said. “Why would StudentsFirst ... and why would the U.S. Chamber of Commerce be heavily promoting this?”

A spokesman for StudentsFirst said the movie highlights the use of the “parent trigger” law, which is on the books in some states. The law allows parents to take control of a failing school if a majority of them sign a petition to do so.

“We want to bring attention to the frustration that parents and teachers with children stuck in failing schools face, and provide a window on a common-sense reform that empowers parents to alleviate that frustration,” said Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for StudentsFirst. 

NEA was one of the more vocal critics against another film used to promote education reform, “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” a 2010 documentary. Rhee was featured in that film and it was also promoted by the Chamber.

But Van Roekel said he sees a difference between the two films.

“That really wasn't a documentary. It was just a bash,” Van Roekel said, talking about “Waiting for ‘Superman.’ ” “I see it different than a make-believe movie.”

Both union leaders said teachers should help lead and be included in the education reform effort.

“We need to hear and embrace parents' urgency that they have great public school options for our kids,” Weingarten said.

“We have to lead this change. We can't just say no to other people's ideas. We have to come up with our own solutions,” Van Roekel said.

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