Philly students disrupt anti-union film screening at school district HQ

    Yesterday evening, students from the Philadelphia Student Union disrupted a screening at the School District headquarters of “Won’t Back Down,” a film largely critical of teachers unions and supportive of charter school development.

    The students sat silently in the first few rows of the auditorium, only to break out of their seats about 20 minutes into the film to sit in front of the screen and clap and chant in support of a fair funding formula and against the recent decision by the School Reform Commission to cancel the teachers’ union contract.

    Members of the surprised audience took out their cell phones and began filming the students while event organizers scrambled around the auditorium attempting to control the situation.

    ‘You kids must be going to a failing school.’

    “The School Reform Commission decided to show a movie that blames teachers and their unions for the state of public education,” said Avery McNair, an 18-year-old student at Charter High School for Architecture and Design. “It’s the government that should be blamed for the budget deficit, not teachers.”

    The film screening was sponsored by Comcast Internet Essentials and Sylvia Simms, a member of the state-appointed School Reform Commission. As the students’ chanting continued without pause, a visibly irked Simms told two student protesters: “You kids must be going to a failing school.”

    “She was screaming inches away from my face,” said RubyJane Anderson, an 18-year-old student at Science Leadership Academy. “She was very upset that we shut down her movie night.

    Won’t Back Down” stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as they confront an urban public school system that is not serving their children’s needs. The film was produced in 2012 by conservative Christian entrepreneur Philip Anschutz, who earlier produced the pro-charter film “Waiting for Superman” in 2010. The protagonists organize themselves and others to fight against school administrators, bureaucrats and union officials in order to implement a parent trigger, a legal act through which parents of a public school can change the administration of a poorly performing school, typically by transforming it into a charter school.

    “They’re showing a propaganda film in order to manipulate parents to support how the SRC cancelled the teachers’ contract last week,” said McNair. “If students don’t stand up for themselves and for their teachers, it’s just going to keep spiraling downward. We deserve the same quality of education as the suburbs.”

    After nearly 15 minutes of protest, the student members of the Philadelphia Student Union marched out of the auditorium and ended their action by walking past eight police officers newly arriving to the scene, leaving a confused and annoyed audience to return to their seats and continue on with their feature presentation.

    Last week, the School Reform Commission voted to unilaterally end the School District’s contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and raise teachers’ health care costs, prompting outcry from public education advocates.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.