School choice is a perennial issue in American politics — it comes up in every presidential and gubernatorial election. I regard this as an ethical issue of no great complication: should all parents in America have the right to use the tax money they provide for K-12 education to send their children — who are often trapped in failing public schools — to better schools, of their own choice? The answer is obviously “yes,” by any moral theory with which I am familiar. But powerful political forces — most obviously public teachers’ unions and the politicians that those unions purchase with donations — have fought viciously to stop the spread of voucher programs, charter schools, and even homeschooling. A recent movie — Miss Virginia — helps us understand the passions at play in this public policy debate.
By way of background, the D.C. school system is one of the great scandals in the American educational system. There are a number of superb private schools, such as Sidwell Friends, for the tony elite. Sidwell Friends is a merit-based, highly competitive school — only 7% of its applicants get accepted. It is where Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama sent one or more of their children. (Then) Vice-President Joe Biden and Vice-President Al Gore sent one or more of their grandchildren there. Eighty-four percent of the faculty hold advanced degrees, and the school has a low student-to-faculty ratio — roughly 1,200 students to 160 teachers, i.e., 7.5 ratio. The school is rated 7th best K-12 private school in the country. And while its tuition is $41,000 a year, roughly one-quarter of its students receive financial aid, and over half of its students come from ethnic minorities.
By contrast, the D.C. monopolistic public school system is a mess. It has roughly 4,100 teachers for 47,600 students — a 11.5 to 1 student-teacher ratio. Its budget is over $700 million a year, but when the 50 states plus D.C. are considered, it comes in at 49th. The graduation rate for the traditional public system was 68% for 2019 (compared to 76% for D.C. charter schools).
The D.C. school system is one of the great scandals in the American educational system. Its budget is over $700 million a year, but when the 50 states plus D.C. are considered, it comes in at 49th.
The movie (which takes place in 2003) is based on the true story of one woman’s dedicated efforts to establish the D.C. scholarship voucher program. It starts with the protagonist — Ms. Virginia Walden Ford (played superbly by Emmy-award winner Uzo Aduba) — trying to raise her son in a poor D.C. neighborhood. The boy James (well played by Niles Fitch of This is Us) is bright, but having problems in school. He is viciously bullied by a gang of punks, and we see him forced to help beat up a vulnerable student and stomp on the boy’s glasses. James gets caught and is nearly expelled. Virginia finds a nice private school willing to accept her son (on the basis of his artistic talent), but she has to struggle to pay the tuition. To help, she gets a job as a cleaning woman for a congresswoman.
This sets up the central conflict of the movie. While on the job, Virginia meets the congresswoman, Lorraine Townsend (nicely acted by Aunjanue Ellis of The Help). Virginia and Townsend hit it off, as Townsend is pushing for more funding for the D.C. school system and sees Virginia as a natural ally. Townsend tries to get Virginia to agree to ask a scripted question at an upcoming hearing.
But a decisive event occurs. While emptying the trash from Townsend’s office, Virginia finds a copy of the current school budget for the system, and she discovers that the per student funding for the horrible public school her child was attending exceeds the tuition she is finding it increasingly difficult to pay for the private school he now attends. This leads Virginia to a geistesblitz: the government could provide the same funding for people who want to attend private (or charter) schools as it does for students in the failing public schools.
When Virginia attends the dog-and-pony show that Congresswoman Townsend has arranged, she passionately pleads for a scholarship alternative program. Townsend of course fires her. Virginia then tries to enlist the support of wealthy white Congressman Cliff Williams (quirkily played by Matthew Modine), but he dismisses her as a distraction. Virginia’s son has to return to public school, where he once again is tempted to get into trouble.
Virginia discovers that the per student funding for the horrible public school her child was attending exceeds the tuition for the private school he now attends.
So Virginia organizes a group to circulate petitions to support a voucher program. While she rapidly becomes well known, she also rapidly develops enemies. When she appears on a local talk show, the host (Vanessa Williams) attacks her, armed with material supplied by her now devoted enemy Townsend. And Virginia is threatened by the local drug kingpin — who has a vested interest in the residents of the neighborhood remaining too poorly educated ever to get good jobs and move up in life.
But she also has allies, mainly other parents in the neighborhood, equally fed up with the lousy schools to which they are forced to send their kids. This includes the mother of the boy Virginia’s son helped bully; she winds up as a powerful supporter. It also includes a young man who is one of the drug kingpin’s network of pushers but desires a better life for his young sister. He is killed by the drug lord when his covert assistance of the petition drive is discovered.
At the next meeting on school funding, Virginia is up against her nemesis Townsend and Townsend’s myrmidons. But the audience — consisting of neighborhood parents — refuse to be sandbagged and silenced. They demand some sort of program to enable parents to find haven in private schools. Townsend is brought to silence by the story of the young man who was killed for daring to circulate a petition. One suspects that she at last realizes the real nature of her allies in the war against freedom of choice.
The talk show host Sally Rae now comes around to Virginia’s cause, as does Congressman Cliff Williams. In the dénouement, Williams uses his considerable skills in political gamesmanship to get the bill passed. Matthew Modine’s performance is outstanding. It is lightly done, with a comedic tone — the congressman seems to be driven as much by a desire to skillfully defeat the opponents of school choice as he is to help the poor folks who just honestly want better lives for their children. His performance helps make this a memorable film.
The neighborhood parents refuse to be sandbagged and silenced. They demand some sort of program to enable parents to find haven in private schools.
Although the movie has been generally well received, some critics have been less than adulatory. For example, Frank Scheck of the Hollywood Reporter calls the movie “predictable” and says it doesn’t deal “with the complexities of its subject matter.” Schenk never defends his derogatory remarks. Yes, the picture is based on the true story of a woman who successfully helped to get the D.C. Scholarship Program enacted. So in that regard the movie is “predictable” — but the plot details and characters are not. And what are the complexities here? School choice seems obviously desirable, unless you are a member of a public school teachers union afraid of losing its government-mandated monopoly on schooling.
Especially dismissive is Nell Minow’s critique. Minow is a film reviewer who writes under the nom de plume of “The Movie Mom.” She accuses the movie of being “propaganda” financed by “the right-wing-funded Motion Picture Institute” and of “distorting the other side.” It doesn’t explore “the real political and budgetary issues, like the impact of public schools of taking out their most promising students.”
Now, if there are two subjects about which I am passionate, they are the nature of propaganda and the value of school choice.
Let’s start with the charge that the movie is propaganda. As I have explained elsewhere, the term “propaganda” has both a neutral and a pejorative sense. “Propaganda” as originally and neutrally understood just means communication aimed at persuasion, simpliciter. Many Hollywood movies are “message” movies, and in that regard they are propaganda for some cause or other.
School choice seems obviously desirable, unless you are a member of a public school teachers union afraid of losing its government-mandated monopoly on schooling.
What is “propaganda” in the pejorative sense? It is deceptive or deceitful propaganda. And propaganda is deceitful to the degree to which it is not evidentially based; not truthful; not logical (i.e., employs fallacious reasoning); not transparent; coercive; or targeted at people who are not able to critically assess it (such as people suffering from dementia or young children).
On none of these criteria can Miss Virginia be considered deceitful propaganda — especially when you remember that the film is not a documentary, much less a video of a debate between school choice and anti-school-choice advocates. It is a docudrama — based in fact, but with fictional license to make the story easier and more entertaining to watch.
Going down the criteria given above: is the film evidence-based? It is in its core message: in 2003 the D.C. school system allowed no students financial support to go to other schools if they needed to, and Virginia was central in getting a scholarship program established that was to be funded with extra funds not taken from the D.C. public schools’ budget.
Is the film truthful? Here the Movie Mom slyly points out some minor discrepancies between the movie and real life. In the movie, Virginia has only one child, but in real life, she has more. In the movie, she takes a job as a janitor, but in real life, she took a side job as an accountant. In the movie, she is able to send her boy to school with the scholarship funds, but in real life, while she waited for the program to pass, friends provide the help to send him to the private school.
Movie Mom herself concedes that this all falls under the heading of “dramatic license.” Again, nowhere is the film presented as a straight documentary — it is a docudrama. More troublesome to Movie Mom is the fact that it presents Townsend as trying to block the D.C. scholarship program because “she is captive to some vague special interests,” whereas in reality, “the character is based on Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has spent decades advocating for underprivileged families.” Here it is Movie Mom who is the propagandist in the bad sense.
Nell Minow calls herself “The Movie Mom,” as if she were just another suburban Mom with an interest in movies. In reality, she is the daughter of the super-wealthy lawyer and culture critic Newton Minow — you know, the “ordinary guy” who headed the FCC for a while, called commercial TV a “vast wasteland,” and pushed Congress to create public TV (a reliable leftist news channel supported by tax dollars to this day). Nell Minow is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Chicago law school; she has had a long career in and around investment firms. Anyone want to bet that the schools she attended were of the same low quality as the public school Virginia’s son attended, or that Nell would let her own children go to that school?
Had I been the director, I would have shown the unionized teachers dropping their own children off at private schools, as roughly half do in the inner-city school systems.
As to the “vague special interests” who opposed the D.C. scholarship program, the film doesn’t need to name names. Everyone knows who they were and are: the public teachers’ unions. And Norton, who Movie Mom says was so devoted to the poor, was herself a major recipient of teacher union cash throughout her career. Why didn’t Movie Mom disclose that fact?
Indeed, my sole criticism of the film is that it did not target the teachers’ unions for criticism. Had I been the director, I would have shown the unionized teachers dropping their own children off at private schools, as roughly half do in the inner-city school systems. The king of hypocrisy was Obama, who killed the D.C. scholarship program for years, while his own daughters went to Sidwell Friends.
By the other criteria as well, the movie was not deceptive. It was broadly logical (yes, public schools are well-funded but in many cases dysfunctional). It was transparent — the Motion Picture Institute puts its mission statement online, which is to produce high-quality independent films “designed to entertain, inspire, and educate audiences with captivating stories about human freedom.” Yes, that sure looks like a dangerous “right-wing” funded clandestine hate organization. The film is properly targeted at adults. And in no way does the Motion Picture Institute coerce anyone to watch its films — how could it, even if it wanted to?
As to Movie Mom’s charge — which echoes Scheck’s claim — that the movie doesn’t deal with the real problem of voucher schools cherrypicking the best students, I’m sorry, but I find that totally silly. Virginia’s son is presented as artistic and a potentially good student, but not the best. No, the best student is the one beaten up by the worst students. And this points to the answer to the cherrypicking argument: in dysfunctional schools, the best students don’t generally get a decent education anyway. It is not as if being around undisciplined kids who beat the living crap out of you while the school administrators do nothing were conducive to learning. Maybe the threat of parents being able to withdraw their kids and send them to private schools would induce public school administrators to clean up their own.
The “cherrypicking” argument is one of the dozen or so feeble fallacies the teacher unions and their boosters trot out to oppose school choice. In a piece I wrote for this journal some years back, I rehearsed and refuted all the major ones offered. None have changed. There simply is no morally defensible reason to oppose school choice — none whatsoever.
Miss Virginia is a fine film that treats a major issue fairly. With Biden elected president with the assistance of massive teacher union contributions, we can expect that once again school choice will be in the crosshairs. Viewing this film may help inoculate people against the upcoming teacher unions propaganda campaign.