Last Friday’s newly released movie Won’t Back Down is another narrative about public education some don’t want us to see – those who don’t want to have the conversation about public education reform, and those who protect the status quo. The teachers’ unions.
Unfortunately, many won’t see this movie, perhaps buying into the criticism and hype about teacher’s union bashing, the attempts to discredit, and protests by teachers unions (Click). Opening weekend tabulations, which set a new record low, reflect that likely scenario. There is no shortage of controversy or critical reviews. Why does support for this education movie matter?
Opening weekend box office numbers for the Walden Media release were abysmal. Won’t Back Down grossed only $2.6 million, placing tenth overall and far behind number one Hotel Transylvania’s opening of $42.5 million. Despite a talented Hollywood A-list cast, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, and Oscar Isaac, the movie placed first in “all-time worst openings” category for 2500 or more theaters. (Source: Box Office Mojo)
The local theater was surprisingly empty for an opening weekend evening showing, with as few as 30 moviegoers in a super-sized theater. It was more like a private screening rather than opening weekend of a major Hollywood movie release.
Its release is timely, as students settle in to a new school year, the recent Chicago teacher’s union strike hit the news and the emotional blackmail of continuous school levies looms on the November ballot.
There is no shortage of education statistics to point to the problems in public education, including student performance and taxpayer per-pupil spending. Sadly, education has become a political football, with big money and big politics at stake.
A short clip of Michelle Rhee, founder and CEO of Students First and former Chancellor of DC schools, introduced the movie. (Click) Rhee, a former teacher with Teach for America (More), also taught in Harlem for three years. Over the course of her career, she has taken on “status quo public education and teachers’ unions” and asserts that U.S. public education “has been a bureaucracy about adults” and “we must put students first.” (Source: American Thinker)
Won’t Back Down spotlights the controversial subject of failing schools, bringing public debate to the mainstream, with prominent Hollywood actors in starring roles. Unlike the 2010 documentary, Waiting for Superman, Won’t Back Down puts a fictional and humanizing face to the data and losers in a failed education system – the children. The film focuses on the challenges facing students, parents, and teachers who struggle to find options for failing public schools, and the resulting poverty, crime, and illiteracy.
The themes are universal and upbeat – challenging the odds, changing the status quo, and doing the right thing. The story is based on Parent Trigger Laws, originally enacted in California in 2010, with varying versions in seven states, including Ohio. (More) Parent Trigger Laws are a legal tool parents can use to gain control of a failing school, changing school administration and staff, usually to a charter school.
Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Jamie Fitzpatrick, a struggling single mom in Pittsburgh trying to get her daughter out of a failing inner city school. Unable to afford private school tuition, she is left with no option but to “take over” her daughter’s public school, enlisting the help of other parents and teachers. She pairs up with Viola Davis, as Nona, a disillusioned public school teacher who wants to improve education for her students and her son.
Under the fictional Fail Safe Law, parents and teachers partner to “start a school”. Oscar Isaac plays Michael Perry, a teacher with Teach for America who is conflicted about the role of teachers unions. What results both empowers and unites the parents and teachers, sidestepping the teachers union entirely.
One of the most moving scenes is the open enrollment lottery at Rosa Parks School, where hundreds of parents wait for a handful of spots. The principal touts his school’s success, telling parents, “Wait means they’re not going to do anything about it.”
Perhaps detractors who label the movie as a critique of the public teachers’ unions purposely miss the point in an attempt to shut down ticket sales and debate. It’s safe to say that we are all acquainted with a teacher. It’s also safe to say that our education system does not make the grade, with little to show for taxpayer dollars spent per pupil. There is also a distinction made between teachers and teachers’ unions.
Director Daniel Barnz, whose parents and grandmother are teachers, takes care to illustrate other barriers to reform – uninvolved parents, poverty, burned out teachers, apathetic students, and political machinations by school officials and union bosses. The movie touches on a myriad of reasons for the state of public education, but carefully avoids pointing at one particular cause.
Won’t Back Down is an enjoyable family movie, both inspirational and hopeful. There is no shortage of emotion, and probably a few formulaic lines. Certainly the stars are a bit too “Hollywood glam” for their roles, but performances are genuine. It’s entertaining and illustrative.
Education reform is not a simple problem, nor is there a simple solution. It can’t be neatly wrapped up in a two-hour movie. What’s depicted in Won’t Back Down should start another national dialogue and lead to significant reforms. To quote a line from the movie, “We can’t wait.”
The Hollywood filmmakers and cast (more here) took financial and career risks to make this movie, showing willingness to face controversy from teachers unions and criticism from the community. We need to support risk takers and education reformers. There are those who want to silence public debate about education reform and school choice. The family rating of PG can add up to big-ticket sales.
The film’s success is already in jeopardy – it needs box office sales. Let’s reward good ideas and risk-taking. Support the message of education reform. Bottom line – some want this movie and its message to fail. Our support does matter.