Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Dancing Straw Men Reformster Video Festival

Now and then, amidst the noise and mess of the education debates, you will see a moment where people from several sides are able to find a means of engaging in dialogue based on nuanced looks into the issues and an honest attempt to understand the ideas and positions that motiva-- OH MY DEAR GOD IN HEAVEN!What the hell is that!!??

What the hell that is, is a new music video from Bob Bowden and his crew at Choice Media. It's called "We Don't Want School Choice," and it just totally skewers the living daylights out of a whole bunch of anti-choice positions that nobody on planet earth actually supports. But it has singing and dancing and a monster, so you know this is serious business. I'll embed this special slice of video hell further down the page so you can check my work, but I have watched so you don't have to, and really, that might be best.

It opens with a little text down in the lower left corner, just like a real video on MTV back in 1987. We pan through empty school halls and rooms while the mocking echos of the parent voices at which we're about to shake our satirical scepter. And then the beat kicks in and this jam is off and running.

Cut to five hip hoppy dancers busting moves in front of a plain white background, while the beat drops and the chorus of "We don't want school choice, no, we don't want school choice" pops in.

And now, cut to five pissed off parents. This is a well-selected group, with one Black mom, one Hispanic mom, one Ethnic dad, and a white mom and dad. And we will proceed to meet each of them pretending to present the arguments that the writers will pretend pro public education supporters present. Yes, it's all very meta and satirical.

Black mom is wearing a sweater in a well-appointed kitchen and says, "Though our public schools are losin' we still got no business choosin'" and Hispanic mom, on a comfy high-backed sofa says, "Scholarship to private school? Don't let me pick. I'm just a fool." So right off the bat, the writers will insult parents far more than any public school advocate ever did. Yes, yes-- they are saying that this is exactly what PSA's are saying to parents. But the first statement is a non-sequitor. Do the writers mean that parents should only have business choosin' if public schools are losin'? Because that would support my old point-- families don't want school choice nearly as much as they want a good school. And if a private school wants to give scholarships to families, aka find ways to pay that student's ride themselves instead of sucking public tax dollars out of public schools, I say "Hooray!"

And it just gets weirder.

Ethnic dad says, "Even if our kids got smarter, we don't want the choice of charter," and-- really? Charter schools are now promising to make kids smarter? That's pretty amazing. Those must be different charters from the ones that want to make kids more compliant and obedient, or the ones that want to just raise some test scores. But smartify them-- that would be something.

White mom is-- seriously? White mom is the cartoony one, sitting at a kitchen table with sad looking children, e-devices in hand, while white mom has her hair in curlers in a bandana, just one wardrobe choice short of looking like a Hee Haw sketch. But this is a fun device because the charter-boosting writers can insult parents all they want and just say, "Well, that's what PSA's say about you!" Anyway, white mom says "Public schools are all the same, but it's okay, my kids are lame," and I'm not even sure what the point is here. Public schools are different so we should have choice? Cool, non-lame kids don't want to go to public school? So, go to charter school-- it's what the cool kids are doing? That is some serious marketing mojo there.

And now, as angry parents bust a move, we introduce some new characters.

Did I say white mom was almost a cartoon? Well, meet Scary Schoolmarm-- high-necked blouse, jacket, hair severely pulled back, rising up from behind her wooden beaten-up desk to threaten us with a ruler. Because, I guess, every child should have the choice to not attend the same school that Archie Andrews attended in the fifties. She looks over her glasses at us. And because this character does not exist in real life anywhere on the planet, we appear to have hired an actor-model-dancer to play her, so that she looks vaguely like the too-strict teacher who's going to eventually let down her hair and turn out to be hot later in the video. I will look forward hopefully to that part.

Oh! Here comes the monster!! Descending a computer-inserted tunnel, it's the "Educational Options" monster. I wonder if he is going to eat the Scary Schoolmarm before she can turn hot? I assume he's supposed to represent what PSA's see in the "monster" of school choice, but he looks kind of fun and furry, like a steroid-addled Fraggle. Also, he's an inaccurate representation of the school choice monster; he should be knocking down public school kids and stealing their lunch (or art or phys ed) money.

But back to our points, such as they are. "Families with cash" can make all sorts of choices, "but we shouldn't choose, cause we're too poor" say white mom and dad, who are pretty much Hee Haw characters now (she smacks him in the head). This is a hilarious, nuanced look at the role of poverty in education, particularly appropriate in a video that looks as if it cost enough money to give many poor children scholarships to private schools. But I guess the parents don't want a good school for their child or for the rich folks to bear a fair share of the tax burden so that their local school can be wellfunded and fully supported. They aren't asking for a good school-- they just want to be able to have a choice.

Black mom says that since she's middle class, it's good that "smarter people protect us, so it's for our own good that they dis-respect us." The disrespect is illustrated by an as-yet-not-introduced character who knocks down charter schools, religious schools, other charter schools and chases children, with his bulldozer, into "one-size-fits-all" school. I am not sure who, exactly, is knocking down religious schools, unless it's maybe Mr. Constitution bringing up that damn no public tax dollars for religious institutions business again. This part is confusing because "smarter people than us will tell us what to do without actually involving us" sounds like a pretty common charter-choice policy model to me. I have to assume that black mom is not from, say, Newark or Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood.

Now, as the wacky chorus plays (is this song going to have a bridge soon?), we see an example of why choice is good-- a store's shelves lined with boxes of Burlap Flakes. Then the dancers hold up signs-- "Tell us what to do" (Oh-- here's the bridge). We will hammer this home, because if there's one thing about public schools run by elected school boards that operate under laws requiring transparency, it's that they are far more dictatorial than a charter school run by an unelected board that doesn't answer to anyone (except, sometimes, investors) and doesn't even meet people who attend the school.

And now we have five kids, also dancing.

Now meet Snotty Rich Lady (she is also Unnaturally Large Ears Lady, but I don't think that's part of the point). She says, "We rich should pick our schools, but the poor should clean our pools," and now I'm confused, because maybe she is Eva Moskowitz or a No Excuses school operator who thinks poor kids should be trained to be compliant. It's hard to tell, because this over-the-top cartoon person isn't a good representation of any human living on the planet. But the point is, again, I guess, to say that choice is a privilege that the privileged are trying to deny the poor, except for the privileged few who are responsible for running the charter schools that they would never send  their own kids to because they don't care about having choice, they just want their kid in a good school, and you can see how the nuances of this cartoon video get kind of twisted up in the hammerhanded pointmaking.

But if you want to know who the video makers really hate, here comes the guy who was driving the bulldozer. Big, bearded, smoking a cigar, wearing a fancy suit, and talking with a gruff monster accent-- it's Teachers Union! He even has a "World's Okayest Boss" mug on his desk. He hates charters because they would cause a drop in dues. Rich lady throws in "And if their schools are failing, well, then tell them to go sailing," which I have to admit is a nice writing. But I am starting to wonder-- who exactly does Rich Lady represent? Where do we find this enclave of wealthy folks who are so carefully aligned against school choice? It sure as hell isn't me or the other folks who blog about the issue. We are not the ones who spent $12 or $4 million on a website, or whatever large pile of change was dropped on this video. I didn't see any filthy rich people starving themselves for Dyett High or walking out with students in Newark. Exactly who are these rich people bent on killing school choice? Where are the hedge fund managers announcing, "We could make a fast buck by getting into the charter school biz, but that would be wrong." Name some names!

Another example of no choice being bad-- Evil Union Guy opens a menu and sees only Stewed Liver. It's a cute move, but as with the shelves of Burlap Flakes, one has to ask-- how would this play if the choice was awesome? If the one choice on the shelves was "Golden Awesome Flakes" or the menu offering was "Best Meal Ever." Would we say, "Bring me more choices?" Where's the scene where a guy walks into his home, sees that he's only got one wife to choose from and makes a sad frowny face while the wacky chorus goes on? Do you want me to say it again? People don't want choices-- they want what they want. Choices are only appealing because they increase the odds that you'll be able to get what you want. But our focus is never on having choices-- it's on having the what we want. And if one choice is enough to get that, we're happy.

But I digress. Evil Union Guy knocks over a tripod holding a "Choice" sign, by far the least clever moment in the whole video. One of the dancers holds up a sign that says "Oh My God" and another holds up a sign that says "Tell my agent to get me a decent gig soon." Ha. Just kidding about the second sign.

The writers have been pretty canny in not trying to speak for children, but instead tell this little parable. Ed Choice Monster breaks onto the set and scares away all the grownups, and it walks away, head down, in the Charlie Brown Loser walk, but the children run up and give it hugs. Apparently they do not have the scene where the school choice monster pushes some of the kids away and says, "No, sorry. You can't be my friend." and when they cry and complain says, "Look. Choice means that I get to choose, not you." That would have been a fun scene to include.

One final shot-- everyone dances to the beat in a red wash of light (except Evil Union Guy who just stands there, arms folded, because evil) and then hits a pose on the last note.

So what do we have here. Well, on the one hand, this is well-produced. People with skills either donated valuable time or were well-paid to create this thing. Bob Bowden has a real background in television production and writing (on top of his engineering degrees from Purdue and Stanford), and while his qualifications in the education field may be, technically, non-existent, he's been playing at the charter-choice game for a while. So, like much of the charter movement, money is talking loudly here.

On the other hand, what it's saying is ridiculous. Not since the classic (and now unavailable) Cranky Idiot Grampa Complains About Common Core video have we seen such a ham-handed nuance-free straw man attack. Non-existent characters espousing non-existent arguments boil down to "The rich folks and teachers unions don't want you to have choice, so you should get it" and that just omits so many uncomforable facts and inconvenient truths that it hardly seems worth the bother (or the money they dumped on this). I would rather go back and watch the classic Petrilli and the Fordhams dance to their version of What Does the Fox Say, which at least had the home-made look of people enjoying themselves.

Also, Scary Schoolteacher never turned hot.

Here's the linkage. While I don't want to encourage them with actual views, you still might want to stop over and share your views about the video. The comments section is, so far, wide open.


  1. "smarter people than us will tell us what to do without actually involving us" -- here we have the classic ploy of "accuse-the-opposition-of-what-we're-actually-guilty-of".

    I wonder who the target audience for this is supposed to be, because it sounds like it's geared towards five-year-olds.

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  3. I wish I had not watched it. Here is the person behind it:

  4. Bowdon released a film in 2009 called The Cartel about NJ public schools. The premise is that the teachers union is the "cartel" and is the source of all woes.

    1. No, Rebecca. (Perhaps you're commenting about a film you've never seen?)

      As I made clear in the film, "The Cartel" was not the teachers unions, per se. It's all the status quo entities profiting from the education industrial complex, or education establishment. In fact, I even took pains to make that distinction on TV:

      As for your first comment, in the future, you should probably only use quotation marks when you're actually directly quoting someone, not when writing your own narrative.

      -- Bob

    2. Sorry. I assumed this was in the realm of common knowledge.

      Wikipedia says: "The film regards teachers' unions as the cause of the problems (they are "the cartel" of the title), due to, among other things, the obstacles they put in place to firing bad teachers, through tenure. It also makes the case for school vouchers and charter schools,[3] suggesting that the increased competition will revitalize the school system, leading to improved efficiency and performance in all schools, both district and charter."

      Also "Construction costs and related corruption also represent a major cost according to Bowden" and "Bowden points out Malcolm X Shabazz High School, which he describes as one of the many under-performing schools in the state, which spent 6 million dollars on constructing a brand new "state of the art" football field,[5] rather than spending the same money to improve academics."

      Wow. Corruption in New Jersey? Who'd have thought?

      What about the corrupt charter system in Ohio, where the state head honcho of "choice" schools had to resign because he lied about how badly for-profit charter school chains were failing?

      Aren't for-profit charter chains "entities profiting from the education industrial complex, or education establishment"?

    3. As for my first comment, the first set of quotation marks is because I'm quoting Peter. The second set is because it's an invented expression.