"Won't Back Down": A Break Through for Education Reform?

September 28, 2012

By Greg Galdabini

Every once in a while along comes a feature film that shines a spotlight on an ugly societal wart, fuels public outrage, and inspires efforts to right injustices and implement change. Won’t Back Down, opening in movie theaters nationwide today, just might be one of those movies. At the very least, this film about one mother’s efforts to transform her daughter’s failing school is forcing introspection in school districts nationwide.

Columnist Michael Gerson writes that “Won’t Back Down is to public education what Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was to the meatpacking industry — a needed spotlight, but not for the squeamish. In this case, the product unfit for human consumption is, unfortunately, the instruction of children.”

The Washington Times suggests that Won’t Back Down has the potential to break through like previous Hollywood message movies including Blackboard Jungle, Lean on Me, and Stand and Deliver never quite did:

Docilely reflecting liberal conventional wisdom, such Hollywood films typically let the public school system itself off easy, instead tracing the “root causes” of inner-city school failure to American social injustice — poverty, inequality and underfunded schools.

But times have changed: The faceless bureaucrat and parochial union executive have replaced social injustice and neglect as the enemies du jour. A series of recent documentaries — most famously “Waiting for Superman,” but also “The Lottery” and “The Cartel” — have lambasted teachers unions for putting the demands of failed educators ahead of the needs of struggling children.

These films bubbled near the surface of debate but failed to break through to the mainstream and seize the public consciousness. All that might change this weekend.

Time magazine’s Andrew Rotherham suggests that impatience with teacher union resistance to reforms is such that even established Hollywood stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis (who on the Today Show this week described the education system as “a system that’s broken and needs to be fixed”) are not afraid of the political risks associated with their characters in the movie:

Whether it’s ultimately a cause or effect, Gyllenhaal’s decision to do Won’t Back Down says a lot about how education reform is moving from margins to mainstream. Gyllenhaal and her costars are themselves not backing down in the face of criticism that the film is a school reform propaganda piece. …

Between the teachers unions carping that the movie is unfair and activists claiming that giving parents more power is akin to privatization, the critics have succeeded in turning a forgettable education story into a national conversation piece. That’s for the good. Because whatever you think of the film or of the idea of parent triggers as public policy, the plight of families trapped year after year in unacceptable schools is far more gut-wrenching than anything Hollywood could cook up.

On HuffingtonPost.com, Kevin Chavous praises not only the potential award-winning performances in the film and its entertainment value, but also its depiction of a growing movement:

But the real benefit of the movie for everyday Americans is that it clearly demonstrates the power of parents in the school choice movement. As local school districts inch toward reform, sometimes at a snail's pace, legions of parents, from all walks of life, are asserting themselves more and demanding more from their schools and for their child's education. In fact, that demand led to the original parent trigger law.

Won’t Back Down, a story based on real events, has a happy ending, but for many parents and students stuck in failing schools, the movie might as well be a fairy tale.

Greg Galdabini is Senior Director, Editorial Communications at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Crossposted from FreeEnterprise.com