By Jeff Rousset
On the evening of October 15th, more than twenty public school students shut down a Philadelphia School District-organized anti-teacher movie screening in solidarity with teachers.
One week after the School Reform Commission (SRC) held a secret meeting to terminate the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ contract, Comcast partnered with the School District of Philadelphia to screen “Won’t Back Down” for School District parents. “Won’t Back Down” was produced in 2012 by the same anti-teachers’-union producers that created the public school privatization documentary Waiting for Superman.
Twenty minutes into the film screening, dozens of members of the Philadelphia Student Union stood up from their chairs, walked to the front of the room, and sat down, chanting, “We Won’t Back Down! Philly is a union town!” and “Hey hey! Ho ho! The SRC has got to go!”
Sylvia Simms, a member of the School Reform Commission, who also notably works for Comcast, responded by screaming in students’ faces, “You must go to failing schools!” and “You belong in jail!”
Simms’ actions garnered a lot of attention on social media, where many parents, teachers, students, and community members expressed alarm at her disdainful reaction to a peaceful student protest. The incident shines light on Comcast’s role behind the scenes to privatize education and dismantle the teachers’ union.
Comcast Executive Vice President, David L. Cohen, was featured in a commercial shown to the audience before the movie. Cohen has a long history of pushing for teachers to fund public schools, while Comcast enjoys massive tax breaks and subsidies.
The School Reform Commission is majority-appointed by Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett, who has cut education funding in drastic ways across the state, with the largest impacts of those cuts in Philadelphia. Comcast executives have been prominent fundraisers for Corbett and active in promoting his education agenda. Earlier this year, hundreds of education advocates held a sit-in, and six people were arrested outside the Comcast Center, where a fundraiser was being thrown for Corbett by the Republican Governor’s Association. And last year Cohen raised more than $200,000 for Corbett at his home.
Last year, Cohen, who is also the head of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, and head of the University of Pennsylvania’s board of trustees, co-wrote an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer proposing a plan to fund the school district. His budget solution included $133 million in concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Cohen, who himself earned more than thirteen million dollars last year, mentioned nothing about Comcast – which earned a whopping $64 billion in 2013 – paying its fair share in taxes to help close the budget. In the 1990’s, Cohen was then-Mayor Ed Rendell’s top aide in negotiating union contracts, and he has continued to play a role behind the scenes to undermine workers’ rights.
Comcast is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a powerful nationwide organization where mostly conservative state legislators collaborate with business leaders to draft policy, including education, labor, and media policy, for legislators to pass at the state level. ALEC, which is backed by billionaires including the Koch brothers, has been a central force in the national movement to privatize education. Philadelphia is ground zero. Comcast and ALEC were also the biggest forces in the fight against earned sick days for Philly workers.
Business is booming for Comcast, but Comcast is still receiving public handouts. The company doesn’t have to foot the entire bill for its new $1.2 billion building in Philadelphia, which will be the new tallest building in the city, taking that spot from Comcast’s current skyscraper. The company will receive $40 million in state and city grants. Not only does Comcast receive taxpayer subsidies that could be funding schools, but it also gets giant tax breaks; one reason our school district is so broke in the first place.
The particular Comcast product that served as the named sponsor for the Won’t Back Down screening was Comcast’s Internet Essentials program. Internet Essentials, a program Comcast developed as a sweetener for federal regulators and legislators to consider when Comcast pushed to merge with NBC Universal, was originally designed to bring 2 million poor families online. In its hometown of Philadelphia, the program has only reached about 9% of eligible families, and has a history of well documented failure. The program has not only failed to bridge the digital divide, it’s now being used to divide our communities by pitting parents against teachers.
Comcast didn’t just sponsor this movie – they are far too often behind the scenes cutting deals around our families’ educations, and building a Philadelphia for the 1%. While Comcast supports leaders like Sylvia Simms and Tom Corbett, we at the Media Mobilizing Project celebrate the members of Philadelphia Student Union who disrupted the movie. They demonstrated incredible bravery and unity to support our teachers by peacefully protesting in the tradition of the Civil Rights Movement. MMP believes all young people are leaders who should be listened to, and not yelled at. When it comes to Philly schools, we believe we need more leadership from students and teachers, and less from Comcast and the SRC. Until that happens, you can bet that Philadelphia communities won’t back down.
Jeff Rousset is an organizer with the Media Mobilizing Project working on the CAP Comcast campaign.