Hollywood Takes Up School Reform’s Latest Agenda in ‘Won’t Back Down’

Julianne Hing Sep 28, 2012

Can a Hollywood movie spark a political movement? The nation is about to find out the answer with the debut on Friday of “Won’t Back Down,” a 20th Century Fox film which gives the Hollywood treatment to a hot button education policy fight raging across the country. Who said school reform can’t be sexy, or at least bring you to weepy tears?

The film, slated for national release on September 28, depicts the fictional fight of two women, one a teacher, who want to take over their struggling Pittsburgh public school. With Viola Davis as the devoted but weary schoolteacher and Maggie Gyllenhaal playing the spunky and fierce single mom, the two team up to win over a conflicted schoolteacher played by Rosie Perez and against a villainous union boss played by Holly Hunter to overhaul the school. 

It’s got all the tropes of the current education reform debate—inspiring and frustrated parents, underhanded teachers unions, dead-eyed teachers and features as its policy centerpiece parent empowerment laws which have fired up the country’s school reform debate. And the film has got all the emotional highlights of the current fight as well. 

But “Won’t Back Down” is not just a feel-good Hollywood flick. It’s a well-funded political tool to advance a hot-button school reform policy around the nation. The film, using the current national debate around school reform as its ideological foundation, challenges viewers: In the fight for educational equity and individual justice, who will win? Teachers unions or the rest of the nation?

The film dramatizes the real-life policy debate happening right now across the country as states debate parent trigger laws which give parents the power to dissolve and remake their kids’ failing public schools if organizers can garner the support of more than 50 percent of parents at the school. Parent trigger backers, among them the former Washington D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have said that the law, which is on the books in seven states, is a powerful tool to empower parents, who are too often left out of the school reform debate. Yet skeptics say the law only provides the illusion of parental empowerment—that the law is designed to shortcut the destabilization of public schools, and the actual process doesn’t leave room to ensure lasting involvement from parents.

At the heart of the debate around parent triggers is a fundamental disagreement over the roots of educational inequality in the country, and how to fix the problem. The common refrain among mainstream school reformers, that teachers are the most important people in a student’s educational experience, gives way to its corollary—that teachers are most at fault for the state of U.S. public education. In the rush to crack down on teachers and improve public schools, reform policies have become more market-based and punitive, with a focus on student test scores as the measure for teacher quality. Public school defenders argue that the real change doesn’t come from handing failing schools over to outside operators or the private sector, but in moving a unified teacher-student-parent agenda to improve schools from within.

“Our major problem is we should be working with parents to be making better schools,” said Lee Barrios, a steering committee member of Save Our Schools, a grassroots public education reform group which is organizing a campaign against parent trigger laws. “Rather than improving our schools the [parent trigger] is about replacing our schools.”

The film is a high-profile enough slam of teachers unions that Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, lambasted the film in a statement last month.”[I]nstead of focusing on real parent empowerment and how communities can come together to help all children succeed,” Weingarten said, “‘Won’t Back Down’ offers parents a false choice—you’re either for students or for teachers, you can either live with a low-performing school or take dramatic, disruptive action to shut a school down.” Most troubling to education reform skeptics is that outside of Hollywood, the real-life reform debate mirrors the film’s fictional narrative tension.

Yet the mainstream debate around school reform is not on Barrios’, or Weingarten’s side. The parent trigger has bipartisan support up and down the lawmaking spectrum, and has spread across the country rapidly since it hit the books first in California. ‘“Won’t Back Down” ensures that the conversation is here to stay.

It helps that the film was produced by Walden Media, the publishing and production company behind 2010’s pro-charter education movie “Waiting for Superman,” which brought the wonky world of market-based school reform to everyday people and made a forceful argument for the dissolution of public schools. With an A-list roster of actors and a glossy big budget release, “Won’t Back Down” is well-positioned to advance the groundwork laid by “Waiting for Superman” in shaping the public dialogue on school reform.

“Our concerns about the film are, first of all, the source,” said Barrios. Indeed, the owner of Walden Media, billionaire entrepreneur Philip Anschutz, also supports the right-wing legislative strategy group ALEC, which includes parent trigger legislation as part of its model policies for school reform. And the film’s distributor, 20th Century Fox, is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who is bringing his News Corp. into the U.S. public schools industry with the help of former New York City schools chief Joel Klein. It’s a lucrative market that Murdoch’s valued at $500 billion.

But the making of the film, however politically relevant for our times, was motivated by civic altruism, say the film’s backers. “Equal educational opportunity is the civil rights issue of our time,” Walden Media President and Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board Member Micheal Flaherty told the paper. Flaherty also invoked Dr. Martin Luther King in his argument for the film, and its market-based school reform strategies. “If there is one thing we would love to accomplish with this film, it is to establish what Dr. King called ‘the fierce urgency of now’ when it comes to giving kids equal educational opportunities.”

Democracy in action is so much messier than a Hollywood version of events, parent trigger detractors and supporters have agreed. In Adelanto and Compton, California, the two districts in the nation where the parent trigger has been pulled, the powerful policy had sent both towns into an uproar, and to the courts, over how to resolve the mess the trigger leaves in its wake. It being Hollywood, the film ends when the switch is flipped, and exactly at the moment when the hardest and most bitter parts of the parent trigger process have begun in real life.

For people who back the parent trigger, like California-based Parent Revolution, the school reform non-profit which provided organizing support to Compton and Adelanto parents, the film is a gift.

It’s also a pointed political tool. Starting Monday, Parent Revolution is headed on a 35-city tour with the film, said David Phelps, Parent Revolution’s communications director. The screening sites, from Miami to Oklahoma City, Richmond and Jacksonville, were chosen in states where legislative activity on the parent trigger is expected in coming legislative sessions. Phelps said Parent Revolution is heading on the road with “Won’t Back Down” with the go-ahead of Walden Media and 20th Century Fox. Screenings of the film will accompany post-show panels and hosted dialogues about the film and the legislative fight that will likely be happening in viewers’ statehouses.

“The movie is very inspirational, it’s very inspiring and we’re hoping that people will walk out of the movie inspired,” Phelps said. “But inspired to take action.”

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