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From testing frequency to charter schools: Ed policy takes star turn in Netflix potboiler

“House of Cards” stars Kevin Spacey as a craven Southern congressman and would-be kingmaker and Robin Wright as his consigliere wife.

"House of Cards," starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, features a storyline about the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon

Surely you’ve read about Netflix’s decision to put an entire season of “House of Cards,” a new, original drama, online for streaming? It’s a political potboiler starring Kevin Spacey as a craven southern congressman and would-be kingmaker and Robin Wright as his consigliere wife.

I confess I ignored the reviews myself until the following headline popped up on Education Week: “Congress Won’t Reauthorize ESEA, So Netflix Will Do It For Them.”

ESEA being the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the nation’s guiding education law colloquially referred to over the last 15 years as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). I haven’t read it myself, but the highest sources in the land have assured me that it makes an excellent stump upon which to split logs.

Long-delayed renewal

It also must be renewed (read: pretty much totally rewritten) every 10 years, something that the in-real-life Congress and the White House are five years behind in doing because the only thing they can agree on is that mostly NCLB has served as a millstone to drown good schools and bad.

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According to Ed Week, the fictional version is a cudgel with which Francis “Frank” Underwood pummels those who get in his way: “Denied a nomination to be secretary of state by the president-elect, Underwood channels his ambitions toward passing a major education bill, the Education Reform and Achievement Act.”

Apparently the ERAA is indeed ripped from the headlines, albeit headlines most frequently published by scandal sheets like Ed Week. Underwood and his foes debate “testing frequency, teacher evaluation, seniority-based exemptions on value-added measurements, financing of non-public schools, and accountability for charter schools [and] an amendment that would strip federal school funding from any unionized districts.”

As observed Ed Week’s guest poster, Ross Brenneman: “All killer, no filler.”

Right about now, you’re asking yourself whether Netflix thought this one through. Me, I’m asking myself why, if “seniority-based exemptions on value-added measurements” are suddenly the stuff of Hollywood, I work, in February, in Minnesota, for a nonprofit with exceptionally generous donors and yet a modest payroll.

Of course, I’d write in a federal education secretary who decided to end-run the congressional badasses by handing out waivers to states that have better ideas. But the show’s producers would probably accuse me of making up a preposterous deus ex machina to resolve my irresolvable plotline.   

There’s more: Beau Willimon, the playwright who adapted “House of Cards” from a British show of the same name, apparently tweeted that he made education and its reform the show’s central polemic because the former affects everyone and the latter is “contentious.”


A different hypothesis

In the article’s comments thread, “Django” offers a different hypothesis: “Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix … is deeply invested (literally, lots of $$$) in education reform. Former chair of the California State Board of Education. Investor in Rocketship charter schools and Dreambox, their for-profit side. Donor to anti-teachers union causes. Investor in the New Schools Venture Fund, EdVoices. Founder of an elitist charter school in CA. Member of Obama’s inner advisory circle on education issues.”

(Is this true? You may decide for yourself.)

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Follows run of ‘Won’t Back Down’

“House of Cards” was released just as “Won’t Back Down,” the movie about a mother and a teacher who team up to save the moppets in a gulag-like inner city school, mercifully disappeared from the local multiplex. The film’s promoters cagily created the impression that its breathless action was inspired a real-life turn of events in which parents take over the hellhole and turn it around.

The real-life turn of events never happened, not even close. There are, however any number of politicos and groups that would like to see the passage of “parent-trigger” laws. One of the policy’s advocates bankrolled the film, in fact.

I’m sure it’s available on Netflix. Stream at your own risk.