The PBS Controversy

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PBS was in the headlines this week. Some affiliate stations are airing a controversial documentary called, “School Inc.” The film is narrated by Andrew Coulson, former director of the Cato Institute which stands in strong support of privatizing public education. Coulson, who worked hard to get this film out, died suddenly in 2016. He once said public schools were government run, and believed there had been no innovation in public education in 100 years. Coulson often spoke of how competition drives innovation, and how a free market can improve public education in America.

Coulson was a brilliant man who devoted his life to studying and advancing freedom through school choice.
Governor Jeb Bush

In the film, Coulson supports unregulated, for-profit schools, where teachers can sell their lessons to students on the Internet. He portrays miraculous charter schools that show innovation. He uses New Orleans as an example of the success of this approach. New Orleans is far from exemplar on anything related to public education. After Hurricane Katrina, nearly 5,000 teachers were fired, and charters replaced public schools. The results have been mixed-mostly unsuccessful, costly, and discriminatory.

Here’s a synopsis of the film:

This three-part documentary, produced by Free To Choose Media, reveals many unfamiliar and often startling realities: the sad fate of Jaime Escalante after the release of the feature film Stand and Deliver; Korean teachers who earn millions of dollars every year; for-profit schools in India that produce excellent results but charge only $5 a month; current U.S. efforts to provide choices and replicate educational excellence; and schools in Chile and Sweden in which top K-12 teachers and schools are reaching large and ever-growing numbers of students. With its beautiful visuals, surprising twists, and energy, School Inc. takes you on a personal, highly insightful journey.

Looking at who supported funding for this film explains a lot. According to Diane Ravitch, The Anderson Foundation is allied with Donors Trust, where donors can make contributions that can’t be traced to them.  Other contributors to Donors Trust include the Koch brothers’ and the Richard and Helen DeVos foundation (yup). Another sponsor of the film is the Gleason Family Foundation aka Center for Educational Reform which is a 501(c)3 nonprofit and pro-education privatization group.

Is the controversy over this documentary because it is a one-sided film supporting charters and vouchers?  Is it that no evidence was provided to support any of the claims in the movie? Maybe it’s because there was no mention of how public school teachers are bound by high stakes testing and accountability, which limits innovation. Or that charters are selective in their admissions process so much that their classrooms do not mirror their public school counterparts?

Coulson mentions  schools in South Korea as exemplar, though there is a high rate of competition which comes at a cost for students, and high stakes testing is the main focus of their drive to success. There is also mention of merit pay for teachers who raise students’ test scores. Study after study has shown merit pay does not yield higher test scores.

In response to an email query on the airing of the film, PBS said the network tries to, “offer programs that reflect diverse viewpoints and promote civic dialogue” and that School Inc. is “an independent production that reflects the personal viewpoint of series creator Andrew Coulson” (Strauss).

PBS has “high editorial standards that ensure that the creative and editorial processes behind the programs offered on PBS are shielded from political pressure or improper influence from funders or other sources.” Yet, the organization offered no explanation when asked why the major supporters of the film are pro-charter.

The controversy is that PBS prides itself on balanced views to informing the American public, and this is not balanced; it is one-sided. Heavily funded by pro-charter and voucher foundations only gives the public a one-sided view. This is the clear message pro-charter and voucher proponents want to sell. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know where I stand on charter schools. I try to provide evidence to support my claims, as it is about presenting factual information-even if opinion is in there.

When I teach my students to write a good research paper, I tell them to find the counter-point to their paper, and address it. What would critics argue about the points in the paper? I tell them to address them clearly, which eliminates any bias and makes for a stronger paper. Often I have students present both sides to a controversial issue- and to do so in such a way the audience cannot tell which side they favor. This would have been a good idea for this film.

These are my reflections for today.                                                                                            6/24/17

***follow me on facebook  Reflections in Education.

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Author: Meg White

I am a lifelong educator and I hope to use this blog to reflect on what's happening in public education. These are my musings, opinions, and reflections. If you learn from them, good for us. Ignorance is no excuse. I have co-authored a book, "Questioning Assumptions and Challenging Perceptions: Becoming an Effective Teacher in Urban Environments" (available on amazon)

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