Won’t Back Down, released in theaters today, has teachers’ unions furious because of its positive portrayal of school choice. The movie, about a failing public school in Pittsburgh, stars Oscar nominees Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and was produced by Walden Media and 20th Century Fox. Walden’s president, Micheal Flaherty, talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez on his and our vested interest in the project.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Who can’t back down when it comes to education?
MICHEAL FLAHERTY: State and federal legislators need to make sure that parents have as much choice as possible over their kids’ education. Too often parents — particularly poor and minority parents — have to rely 100 percent on luck in a system where their odds are about the same as what they would get at the blackjack table. Parents are the only people who have no conflict of interest when it comes to education. Their decision is solely based on what is in the best interest of the child. The more power and choice we give parents, the more opportunity we will have for their kids as well as other people’s children. But we need to make sure that city, state, and local governments give them the tools they need.
LOPEZ: How did you get involved in this movie?
FLAHERTY: Many of the movies that we make are based on classic literature that families love — Narnia, Holes, Bridge to Terabithia, Because of Winn-Dixie, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Charlotte’s Web, and dozens more. Occasionally we like to tell real-life stories of people who have overcome incredible odds and changed the world — like Ray, starring Jamie Foxx, and Amazing Grace, which told the story of William Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists.
I have been involved in ed reform since the early 1990s, when I was a legislative aide to the president of the Massachusetts state senate, a legendary Democrat named Bill Bulger. I worked on legislation during the day and I tutored at night and on the weekends. During that time I met amazing women — many of them single moms — who fought and sacrificed to try to get their kids a good education. Also — providentially — I met my wife, Kelly, at the same time; she was a teacher in the Catholic schools and also went on to teach in the public schools. Through her I met a number of hero teachers, particularly friends that she had since grade school in Brooklyn who now teach in the New York City public schools. Three of them were in our wedding party. I wanted to make a film that honored amazing teachers and courageous parents and show what could happen when they joined forces — and the obstacles that they have been battling for decades.
LOPEZ: Are the unions an enemy in your mind? Does the reaction of the American Federation of Teachers surprise you?
FLAHERTY: My grandfather came over here from Ireland. Unions did a great job sticking up for him and so many other immigrants in his neighborhood. The NEA and the AFT are right to protect teachers, but I think that they do the profession a disservice by treating all teachers like they are the same. As a result, so many great teachers do not get the treatment, compensation, and respect that they deserve, because the teachers’ union can’t seem to admit that there are some folks that are not good at their job and they should find a different career. As a result of refusing to embrace this commonsense proposition, the overwhelming majority of good teachers suffer.