Hipsters for charter schools: The big lie "Togetherness" tells about race and education

Rich whites run charter industry and funnel them cash. On HBO, it's a post-racial bandwagon gutting public schools

Published March 21, 2015 1:29PM (EDT)

Michelle Rhee; Melanie Lynskey in "Togetherness"     (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/HBO/Jaimie Trueblood)
Michelle Rhee; Melanie Lynskey in "Togetherness" (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/HBO/Jaimie Trueblood)

Michelle Pierson, a 40-ish mother of two, is in a state of confusion over her the direction in life and finds herself wandering down the main drag of her gentrifying, hip Northeast Los Angeles neighborhood. She hears a confident voice coming from Eagle Rock City Hall that entices her in.

Inside, David Garcia, a handsome, charismatic Latino, is speaking stirringly to a group of concerned parents. He says, “There's like bird shit all over the place -- I mean you got kids eating five-day-old sloppy joes. Our public school system is broken. I don't think we can fix the old schools but I'll tell you what we can do. We can build a new one. Isn't a great school no more than a box and an inspired teacher inside of it? We need a great charter school here in Eagle Rock. Let's create a place for our children to flourish. There's a big empty hole in our community. And if we don't do anything about it, our kids are going to be more disenfranchised and lost than we are now.”

Michelle is entranced, and suddenly her life has found a purpose.

Charter school dogma has made it to the Big Time: It just got its own soapbox on the Duplass brothers’ HBO Sunday night series “Togetherness.”

The one thing the aging-hipster parents know of their school district, Los Angeles Unified, is its “broken-ness” — and by extension, the rest of America’s obsession with that term. These “thoughtful” parents don’t waste one breath discussing the possibility of their white middle-class children attending their neighborhood school, saving it instead for lengthy wails of anxiety about private school applications and liberal guilt about isolating their kids from “the community.”

Who cares what a Hollywood show about “disenfranchised and lost” film industry workers and their precious progeny does?

We all should, because “Togetherness” very much reflects the state of national discourse on education and its corrosive effects on public schools, particularly as it has played out in Los Angeles. (I taught in LAUSD public schools for 20 years.) The show also presciently mirrors a current school board race in that district that is pitting a charter school reformer against an old-time public school advocate.

With “Togetherness,” we witness the battle through the intersection of art, politics, race and class.

The show’s creators, Mark and Jay Duplass, are the very talented Hollywood powerhouse titans of smart, artsy films about the white middle class and its obsessions; their work dominates Sundance and they have a four-picture deal with Netflix. The brothers also live in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles School Board District 5, and that’s where they’ve set “Togetherness.” It also happens to be where I live and will send my son to school when he is old enough. Although the show is ostensibly about the marriage and lives of Hollywood sound man Brett and his wife, Michelle, the charter school plotline is enlightening and can be discussed in light of not only LAUSD’s relationship to these characters, but to the nation as a whole.

The charter school speech-maker, David Garcia, an aspiring politician, begins with the mantra that has been drummed around the country for the last 20 years: “Our public education system is broken.”

Is it broken in Palos Verdes? In Beverly Hills? In Malibu? Or any of the richer districts that surround L.A.?  No, but definitely, apparently, in Eagle Rock.

Michelle goes up to David after his speech and says, “My daughter is going to start kindergarten and we're talking about where is she going to go... what is she going to do... I'm wondering why is there not some community place -- somewhere I can put her and feel good with a lot of different people. I don't want to put her in a private school where she doesn't get to experience what life is like where we live. I mean why is there not a great place?”

The Eagle Rock public schools are obviously not an option for Michelle. Our local elementary schools -- Eagle Rock, Rockdale, Dahlia Heights — get conflated into the fictional “Townsend Elementary,”  and are clearly not gonna cut it. It goes without saying.

Michelle has previously been shown speaking longingly to her husband, who has all but decided to put their kid in private school: “Don't you want her to be in a different kind of community with kids of different colors and economic backgrounds?

That obviously — to these characters and to many real life members of their demographic — isn’t the public schools.

But why not? One LAUSD school board member has said pointedly that “maybe it’s time for the district to look in the mirror and figure out what can be done within district schools to make parents less eager to remove their children into charters.”

True enough. And maybe it’s time for charter school advocates to look into their own mirror.

Is it, could it actually be, the “bird shit” and “five-day-old sloppy joes”? No, because episode 6 demonstrates how hard Michelle is willing to work to find and clean out an old building for the new school. Surely, cleaning up some bird feces at an already functioning facility and agitating for better food — or packing a lunchbox — would have been much easier.

Is it because a bloated school bureaucracy is truly causing these parents to be “disenfranchised and lost”? Not really, because when David and Michelle finally make their impassioned plea for a charter to the public school commission in Sacramento, they are met with misty-eyed commissioners and an implied approval.

Could it be — gasp! — race, or class? Eagle Rock Elementary School is only 17 percent white, with 57 percent of the kids qualifying for subsidized school lunches.

No, no, no, no! the series replies. In the final episode, there is Michelle leading a post-racial bandwagon, driving up to Sacramento to argue their case. Along with David, the show’s sole Latino, there’s a gay Asian political consultant and a black principal who will fight for this charter. They all bond over a car karaoke hit.

Wealthy white people, as a rule, control the charter school industry across the country. White people run the billionaire philanthropic foundations that funnel money into charter schools. White people dominate the editorial boards of the major urban papers who sympathize with charter school interests. But, in a smoke-screen that has also been used in real life, we get well-spoken, dynamic David as our charter spokesman for the show.

Class, he and the show simply never address.

Neighborhood schools have become the bogeyman for all of society’s social failings, particularly from a class of moneyed interests who share both Democratic and Republican affiliations. For Brett and Michelle Pierson and many white parents of their education and class, all the education reform nonsense might “feel right” for minority kids — but just not for their children. The reality is that these power parents, who share a kinship with almost all of L.A.’s economic, political and media elite, do not want to send their own kids to a school that neo-liberal mayors of Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York, who aggressively pursued the reform agenda, created for the working-class kids of color they “served.” All these cities had school superintendents who believed in a different pedagogy for poor kids.

These are schools with ever-growing class sizes, maligned teachers, schools obsessed with standardized test-based “rigor,” stripped of arts, music, field trips, nurses, janitors, counselors, libraries, physical education, integrity, or as Education Secretary Arne Duncan might put it, “air.” They are schools deprived of much-needed physical repairs and teachers deprived of support and training in favor of ill-considered technological quick-fixes (the quicker the better!). Schools that have fallen victim to “market-based” reforms imposed without a shred of evidence of pedagogical effectiveness, except the fantasies of economists and billionaire businessmen who demanded them in the first place.

There is much more that can and has been said about the larger economic and political forces at work in the “reform” movement, and particularly the charter school industry. The sad reality is that almost anything can be imposed on the neighborhood schools of poor kids of color — testing, school closing, inexperienced “revolving door” teachers — because those parents simply do not have the same economic or political clout as their white counterparts. Race and class majority issues are profoundly uncomfortable, to the point of taboo, to speak about in these contexts.

Let us substitute instead, as does “Togetherness,” a code phrase: “test scores.”

As a viewer who flips back and forth from fantasy to reality versions of Eagle Rock, I wonder if the Piersons ever investigated the elementary schools in Eagle Rock. If they did, my bet is the  reason they found them lacking was because middle-class whites weren’t the majority. The school automatically became suspect, and they used "test scores" -- whatever the hell that means! -- to justify looking elsewhere. "Test scores" are code words for minority underclass.

The political consultant in the car tells David, “You have to convince them that we’re gonna deliver way higher scores than Townsend Elementary, and with Anita’s track record we got a shot.”

We are left with two fantasies: that test scores (tests designed and scored by for-profit corporations, again without regard for pedagogical soundness) can be somehow divorced from neighborhood contexts of poverty, immigration status, English language proficiency, etc.  And that a great school is “no more than a box and an inspired teacher inside of it.”

It’s easy to see why these fantasies are comforting, and why they have been so useful for certain political ends.

Parents like Michelle and Brett don’t have time to ask big policy questions about school funding inequity and collective responsibility. They — like everyone — want what’s best for their own kid, and believe they are acting on it. They seek out an alternative that they believe they can control — their own school.

When David Garcia finishes his impassioned speech before the overwhelmingly white Sacramento State Ed board, the chairman is savvy enough to recognize Garcia’s political ambitions and ask who will actually be running the proposed charter school.

The members of the Rainbow Coalition look at each other nervously. They have clearly never considered this. Anita, even with her “track record,” stays quiet.

Michelle nervously comes to the podium to declare that she — a mom with some “background in social work” — will be the “main man” at the school. She starts hesitantly, but gets stronger as she concludes: "It’s valuable to all our families who are eager to stay in Eagle Rock. They just need a good reason. This school is that reason. I find it very hard to accept that of the 100 charter schools in the state, not one is in my district when we need it more than most. I want to stick in and fight for my community. I do, but if we don’t get a good school then we are going to be forced to move like so many of our friends have. My kids need this school. Our community really needs this school and I need this school.”

Setting aside the grotesque assertion that Eagle Rock needs an alternative to its neighborhood public schools “more than most,” the notion of “community” put forward by Michelle here encapsulates the most insidious aspect of the charter school movement. With the exception of white middle-class children whose parents enroll them elsewhere, Eagle Rock public school demographics represent the racial and economic diversity of Eagle Rock community very well.

Though it must never be said out loud, this community is too much for the vision of Michelle’s “community.”

Michelle’s liberal conscience prods her to speak appreciatively about color and class diversity, but when that aspect of Eagle Rock’s community collides with her “community,” she wants to use a charter school to regain a sense of control.

The scenario is familiar in LAUSD from some of the charter school skirmishes on the West Side with parents with clout and power arguing for co-locations. This dinner table discussion is familiar to plenty of educated, middle-upper class parents in urban districts who would like to consider a local school — but...

Many are too busy in their own lives to do the true hard work of making public education better, so they leave it to "organizations" with a glossy spiel to do the heavy lifting and then sign up with them. Then they convince themselves that this is the best thing for their kid, and once that decision is made, they have a vested interest in believing it to the point where now they will do the hard work to preserve what they have for their kid.

And the show’s State Board of Education appears to lap it up.

If “Togetherness” showed the slightest shred of self-awareness, we might interpret this subplot as a radical critique of the worst elements of the charter school movement: its hollow rhetoric and pedagogical vacuity, its appeal to narrow self-interest, the way it divides communities and the way the state has embraced all of it uncritically for political (financial) ends.

Instead, it’s clear that the Duplass brothers and their characters are speaking completely un-ironically and obliviously about all their (now cliché) white privilege and entitlement and, yes, racism and classism in defining what constitutes "good" for them. With HBO’s endorsement, they believe (hope) that they are speaking for and to an affluent white audience who are rooting for these characters.

Michelle Pierson’s narcissistic appeal on behalf of the Eagle Rock Charter reveals her entire world view — that she and her kids ARE “the community” — and much of the charter school movement depends on that view.

Like everything else, art plays out on a socio-economic battlefield. You may not watch “Togetherness,” but people who shape the culture and economy do.

And the viewpoints depicted in the show trickle down Colorado Blvd. to L.A’.s District 5 school board race and join the debate throughout the rest of the country.

We should all be very, very concerned with the type of “togetherness” we are being sold here.

I invite my fellow citizens of Eagle Rock — the entire, real community — to work together to save our neighborhood public schools.

Even when it is sometimes from ourselves.



By Joshua Leibner

MORE FROM Joshua Leibner

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