School reformers who want to change the debate over how to fix America’s public schools are successfully using a new weapon: cinema.
First came The Cartel, a 2009 documentary by former Bloomberg Television reporter Bob Bowdon. Turning a lens on New Jersey’s education system, he demonstrated how urban schools often continue to fail no matter how much money taxpayers throw at them. Then 2010 gave us Waiting for Superman, an emotionally powerful documentary by the liberal director of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. It followed several students who hoped to escape bad public schools by applying for a lottery that awarded a few scarce places in an independent charter school.
Now, this Friday will see the premiere of Walden Media’s Won’t Back Down, a feature-length film starring Academy Award nominees Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a teacher-parent duo who try to take over an abysmally failing public school in Pittsburgh. At a preview screening I attended, the film drew a standing ovation for its depiction of exactly how difficult it is for parents to fight the system.
But critics are also out in force. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has written an open letter attacking the film. “The movie resorts to falsehoods and anti-union stereotypes,” she writes. “[It] contains several egregiously misleading scenes with the sole purpose of undermining people’s confidence in public education, public school teachers and teachers unions.”
StudentsFirst (the school-reform group headed by Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of public schools in Washington, D.C.) caused a ruckus when it announced plans to show Won’t Back Down at the Democratic convention in Charlotte. According to the Huffington Post, the request to allow a screening not far from the convention hall went all the way up to the highest levels of the Obama administration before being fobbed off to the Democratic National Committee for a final decision. It ultimately raised no objections.
Nonetheless, that decision raised the ire of many liberals. The website Crooks and Liars spluttered that the film was financed by “right-wing education deformers” such as Walden Media owner Phil Anschutz and that “no self-respecting Democrat should be caught dead at this screening.” The website even announced that it would station a camera outside the theater “to see who supports public schools and who doesn’t.”
Director Daniel Barnz, a self-described “liberal Democrat” who has many relatives who are teachers, isn’t fazed by the criticism. “The film is not an anti-union movie,” he told the Huffington Post. “It is possible to support and criticize unions. And that, I have discovered, is not a very popular thing to say.”
Indeed, the union does come in for many lumps in the film. Viola Davis, who has a sister who teaches in a public high school, plays a teacher named Nona who is burned out. “Nona has been in the system for 20 years and has lost her passion for teaching,” she told USA Today. “That is pretty prevalent in school systems today. A lot start off gung-ho but then come up against a wall of bureaucracy.” Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jamie, a single mom who pleads with the school for extra help so her dyslexic child can learn to read. When the bureaucracy ignores her pleas, she teams up with Nona to use a “parent trigger” law in an effort to take over their failing school and allow it to operate outside the rigid union contract. District bureaucrats and the union try to buy off Jamie, and then they get Nona placed on leave from the school by smearing her character.
Parent-trigger laws are currently on the books in California, Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The brainchild of former Clinton White House aide Ben Austin, they allow parents to replace the bureaucracy of a failing school if a majority of parents signs a petition. Won’t Back Down is based on the actual attempt of parents in a school near San Bernardino, Calif., to change the direction of their local school.
But parent-trigger laws are anathema to the education “blob.” When Rahm Emanuel ran for mayor of Chicago last year, he called for Chicago schools to adopt such a law. Currently, 44 percent of high-school freshman fail to graduate from Chicago public high schools, and fewer than 8 percent of eleventh-graders in Chicago schools pass tests certifying they are ready for college work. “Giving parents this power would encourage them to play a larger role in their children’s education, and with greater power would come greater responsibility,” Emanuel told voters.
When the Chicago teachers’ union held a nine-day strike this month, one of its demands was that the city redirect back into the existing school system the $76 million it had earmarked for expanding independent charter schools. The strike ended with the unions winning a 17 percent pay increase over four years for its members; the union also succeeded in watering down several education reforms Emanuel had promoted. Luckily, most of the support earmarked for charter schools survived the contract negotiations.
One reason the charter-school earmarks survived is that Chicago parents took due note during the strike: When public-school teachers went out on strike, every public charter school in Chicago, along with private and parochial schools, remained open. Won’t Back Down couldn’t hit screens at a better time in the debate over education reform in Chicago and elsewhere in America. Here’s hoping it inspires some parents to emulate the film’s fictional Nona and Jamie and to demand the tools they need to fight the education “blob.”
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.