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.
LOPEZ: Did you expect protests of the movie? What do you wish people denouncing the movie would consider?
FLAHERTY: I have been to this rodeo before, both through my work in the Massachusetts state senate and as one of the companies behind Waiting for Superman. So I knew that there would be protests, and as a First Amendment absolutist, it is a wonderful thing to see. But I can’t escape the irony that nearly all of the people who are protesting the film have never even seen it. And these are people who are supposed to believe in the value of education and the key role exploring new ideas plays in that process. But they prefer censorship to dialogue. The behavior of the protesters parallels the problem with the attitude of the defenders of the status quo in education — they are allergic to even listening to new ideas.
And there is another troubling parallel. It is impossible to quarrel with the reality of our film’s basic premise — some of our children are trapped in failing classrooms, when just across the hall there is a teacher who can have a transforming impact on their education. That is the definition of inequality. But rather than answer the essential question of social justice — “What would you do if that was your child?” — the deniers resort to name-calling, bullying, and intimidation.
LOPEZ: Is the movie in any way meant to be a commercial for trigger laws, or to advance another policy agenda?
FLAHERTY: This movie is about people, not policy.
LOPEZ: What does this movie have to do with William Wilberforce?
FLAHERTY: William Wilberforce came to understand the profound cost of change in battling a powerful status quo and an entrenched mindset. But his name will never be lost to history, unlike the millions of his co-belligerents and fellow abolitionists who paid such a personal price with their health, their wealth, their friendships, and even their lives. There is an enormous personal cost in fighting for change, and today there are a number of brave men and women who are fighting not just for their kids, but for other people’s children. And they are paying quite a price. I have met with parents in Compton, Calif., as well as Adelanto, Calif., who have been fighting to improve their kids’ failing schools. They have endured harassment that most of us will never experience. A number of the moms who are Latina have even been threatened with deportation unless they abandoned fighting for their kids. And unlike Wilberforce, these folks do not have a personal fortune and the influence of being a Member of Parliament on their side. But they never abandon the fight.
LOPEZ: What heartened or surprised you about the reception for Waiting for Superman?
FLAHERTY: The greatest surprise for me with Waiting for Superman has been the enormous impact it continues to make outside of the box office. And on a personal level, I got to meet one of the world’s great filmmakers — Davis Guggenheim — and one of my favorite producers, who is now a good friend — Leslie Chilcott.
LOPEZ: Who was your favorite teacher, and why does that matter?
FLAHERTY: I went to public school until high school, and I had no shortage of great teachers — in sixth grade, Miss Greeley taught us poetry and art, and in middle school, Mr. Garfield taught me English. But as I talk about teachers, let me give a shout-out to my school librarian, Mrs. Ruddick. She went out of her way to encourage me to read and was always recommending new books. She knew about the power of stories and their ability to transform and to challenge.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.