Superintendent Rocky Killion, standing on stage in an unfamiliar auditorium at Anderson High School late last month, was trying to galvanize a couple dozen teachers and public school activists.
“You may like this movie,” he said. “You may get mad about this movie. That’s fine. This is not about a political party.”
Killion was introducing a screening of the documentary film “Rise Above the Mark,” a film that says its goal is to expose the “corporate takeover of public schools.”
It was Killion, while serving as superintendent of the affluent, high-performing West Lafayette public schools, who led the film’s creation and then persuaded a tiny foundation attached the district to pay for it.
The movie has taken on a life of its own. The original vision — spending about $40,000 to feature some of the best attributes of West Lafayette schools — has long since been eclipsed.
The movie, narrated by Peter Coyote, who played the key-shaking scientist tracking an alien in “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” showcases frustrated teachers, experts and others complaining about recent changes in education funding and other new pressures placed on schools.
The film paints former state Superintendent Tony Bennett as a primary villain. Bennett, ousted by voters in 2012 by teacher champion Glenda Ritz, pushed many of the changes the film opposes.
Awkwardly for Killion and West Lafayette schools, Bennett worked in concert with the state’s then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, who now is president of West Lafayette’s economic lifeblood Purdue University.
Killion is now balancing his day job running the district with cross-country trips to promote an issue-driven documentary with a political bent. The foundation is still spending to promote the film, which it thinks will ultimately cost at least twice the budgeted amount.
“Rise Above the Mark” may have the exact opposite message of the popular 2010 education documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which starred education reform advocates including former Washington D.C. schools leader Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates, but Killion is hoping for the same result — increased attention for a point of view he believes has not been adequately represented.
Through the film, Killion joins an unofficial cadre of high-performing local education superintendents nationwide who often are caught on a delicate political tightrope, balancing leading their districts with advocating for them financially at the state or federal level.
“I have great interest in trying to influence the national conversation about education,” he said.
“Rise Above the Mark” has captured the attention of high-profile opponents of the hottest school reform initiatives being pushed by lawmakers in a host of states — school choice, more testing and greater accountability for schools, teachers and students. It has excited local public school activists who hope to reverse the trend.
But three months after its premiere, questions remain about whether the movie ultimately will make the impact Killion is hoping for in Indiana: a return of trust and funding to public schools like his that are succeeding.
“I haven’t heard one legislator say anything about the film – positive or negative,” said Randy Truitt, R-Lafayette, a lawmaker who at times straddles the fence on touchy Indiana education legislation. He was interviewed for “Rise Above the Mark” but didn’t make the final cut.
“Most of them haven’t seen it,” Truitt said of his legislative colleagues. “I don’t think most of them want to see it, because it’s a topic where there’s so much more to the story than one person or one group can illustrate.”
How, then, did Killion manage to convince West Lafayette school supporters to spend tens of thousands of dollars on an anti-education reform documentary that had a chance at alienating the legislature the school district is financially dependent on?
It all started when the West Lafayette school district faced deep cuts to their award-winning music, fine arts and athletic programs as a result of the state’s funding model.
What follows are the lengths that Killion went to protect his schools — from a referendum to restore West Lafayette’s lost state funding to the rallying cry for public schools that is the film “Rise Above the Mark.”
An unlikely epicenter
The curious thing about West Lafeyette schools becoming an epicenter for revolt against Indiana’s recent changes to its education system is that the city’s children are doing very well.
With 91 percent of students passing ISTEP last year, the district was 18 points higher than the state average.
West Lafayette also isn’t poor, like many of the big urban and small rural districts that have been the most vocal opponents of changes like expanded teacher evaluation, testing and school choice. With only 15 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, West Lafayette has the fourth wealthiest student body in the state behind only Zionsville (5 percent), Carmel (10 percent) and Hamilton Southeastern (14 percent).
But one of the reasons Killion argues that Indiana’s education changes have gone too far is that West Lafayette has suffered despite its success. The core of the district’s trouble was financial.
When state legislators in 2009 removed property tax revenue from school districts’ general funds for tax relief, shifting that responsibility to the state, Killion feared he’d have to gut the award-winning extracurriculars to balance the budget.
He estimated West Lafayette Schools would lose between $500,000 and $700,000 per year based on the new funding formula, he wrote at the time. The district soon launched a campaign to pass a seven-year tax referendum. Relying on West Lafayette political strategist Steve Klink for guidance, Killion succeeded: the referendum passed by a 2-1 margin.
But already he was thinking about what came next.
“We know that we have a small window of time to prepare ourselves for our future,” Killion wrote after the referendum passed. “If we don’t find additional funding opportunities by the time our referendum ends, we may face the reality other school districts are currently facing.”
The first blueprints for “Rise Above the Mark” were drawn up shortly after, said West Lafayette school board president Alan Karpick.
“I think it’s realistic to say we had hoped that there would be some ability to raise a fair amount of money from (producing a film),” Karpick said. “Did we think it could solve our funding problems? No.”
From promotional film to politics
A local school foundation isn’t usually the sort of organization that financially backs films meant to help fan the flames of a national movement. In West Lafayette, most of the West Lafayette Schools Education Foundation projects pay for backpacks for poor children, school improvements or other supports for teachers and students.
“We’re not a political group,” said Beth Bangs, a school nurse for West Lafayette’s Happy Hollow Elementary School who is a member of the foundation. “We fund the backpack program.”
The film was paid for entirely by donations to the foundation, with gifts anywhere from $50 to $12,000. The foundation’s development director Sally Miller, who also applied for grants to fund the film, declined to release the identity of the organizations who donated.
“We have donors across the political spectrum,” she said. “What’s been interesting is that because people made donations while we were in the process, they didn’t all know how it was going to turn out.”
Miller estimates so far Rise Above the Mark has cost about $72,000 and she expects more spending. They won’t know the final costs until the showings and events die down, she said.
“Rise Above the Mark” did not turn out to be what the foundation’s first leaders expected it to be: a film to promote the district’s schools.
“The idea from the foundation was we wanted to do a video that said, ‘look at our school and what a unique school system this is,’” said Brad Cohen, the foundation’s immediate past president. “Not all public schools are failing. All of a sudden our mission started twisting, or changing. It became a much bigger project.”
As he developed the film, Killion looked to a former partner: Klink, the strategist who helped with the referendum.
Steve Klink became executive producer of “Rise Above the Mark” and his son Jack Klink, a 23-year-old Purdue University student, became the director. Steve’s wife and Jack’s mother, West Lafayette author Angie Klink, wrote the narrative for the film.
The Klinks didn’t mind being at odds over the film with Indiana Republicans, who are driving most of the education reform legislation in Indiana, even though self-proclaimed conservative Steve Klink worked on the reelection campaign for West Lafayette’s Republican Mayor John Dennis and previously served on the Lafayette City Council.
“We didn’t want to hold ourselves back because we were scared,” Jack Klink said. “That’s what so many people are doing. What we wanted to do was point out these issues and provide a platform for others to come forward.”
One potential partner quickly got cold feet.
A Lafayette marketing firm the foundation had sought out to help produce the film backed away because of its blunt tone.
“What we began to realize is this is a politically charged endeavor,” said Miller, the development director. “I mean, like lightning in a bottle.”
Unlikely political bedfellows
So far, the film’s donors seem to be OK with the tone of the film.
“Indiana’s a conservative state, and when you have businesses and chambers of commerce who are rolling in a conservative manner, you’re going to step on some toes,” Miller said. “Nobody so far has withdrawn their support, or demanded their money back.”
“Rise Above the Mark” has the support of Dennis, West Lafayette’s Republican mayor, who described his school corporation as the “crown jewel” of the community.
“When you engage in discussions that challenge things, sometimes the conversation has no choice but to turn political,” Dennis said.
The doesn’t mean everyone in West Lafayette is thrilled with the foundation’s intense focus on producing and marketing the film.
Truitt, the Republican legislator, said he has heard from community members who are upset about the cost of the film.
“A lot of people were trying to figure it out,” Truitt said. “We’re spending 60, 70, 80 thousand on this, and that’s a lot of education scholarships for kids. The proof will be somewhere down the road when it turns into something.”
Cohen said he understands those concerns.
“Can we question the time spent? Sure,” Cohen said. “Did it cost a little more time than we planned? Yes. Is it perfect? No. But I celebrate what we have.”
Some people started feeling anxious about the tone of the film when Daniels, who recruited Bennett and backed his run for state superintendent, became president of the nearby Purdue University a day after he left the governor’s office in 2013.
The West Lafayette school district and Purdue, the largest employer in Tippecanoe County, are inextricably connected. Many of the district’s children have at least one parent who works at the university.
“It could be a little uncomfortable,” Miller acknowledged.
Daniels has not seen the film, according to his spokeswoman Shelley Triol at Purdue.
“The movie is not meant to kick Mitch out or throw Mitch under the bus,” said Cohen, who was a founding director of the foundation. “It’s just meant to spark a conversation and hold our legislators accountable.”
Keeping the movement going
Perhaps the film’s apex came in early March at a showing at Butler University. The 2,000-seat Clowes Hall was mostly full with cheering teachers and others who were sympathetic to the film’s themes. A rollicking panel discussion afterward included education historian Diane Ravitch.
Once a champion of standards, testing and school choice, Ravitch has rejected that ideology and become the chief national voice in opposition to it. She drew wild applause during sometimes sharp exchanges with advocates for educational change.
“I’m opposed to testing and accountability,” she said. “The only thing we learn from testing is which families have the most income and most education and which have the least. Then we punish the children whose families have the least. Teacher evaluation by test scores is junk science.”
But the crowds haven’t maintained that size or energy.
The Anderson premiere panel discussion drew local anti-reform advocates, and a much smaller crowd.
Speaking to a crowd of not more than 30 people, Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson; Justin Oakley of the Just Let Me Teach radio show; and anti-corporate reform “Hoosier School Heist” author Doug Martin, who has been known to bust out his guitar at meetings and sing about how Tony Bennett and other Indiana reformers ruined education, made their case for public schools.
“You’re being duped,” Oakley told the audience. “You’re being bamboozled. Rome is on fire. We’ve got to fight back.”
Austin hasn’t give up hope that legislators will see the film and hear its message.
“I hope we can get a copy for every legislator in the Indiana general assembly,” she said.
Not everyone in attendance was convinced by its message, including Anderson English teacher Elizabeth Knost.
“It’s a little unfair, because legislators are doing the best they know how to do,” Knost told her colleague, fellow teacher Jordan Pridemore, who was more taken with the film’s message.
“Our students hear it,” returned Pridemore, who said she agreed with the film’s negative characterization of Indiana’s school accountability system. “They say things like ‘Oh, we’re a D school.’”
Driving halfway across the state to show the film to a sparse crowd is worth it for those conversations, Killion said. There’s a chance of reaching another voter, another politician, another teacher that can join his cause.
“The future is hard to predict, but I believe this documentary is going to continue to expand and conversation will definitely reach a national level,” he said “Twenty people here, 30 there. That’s what it takes.”