‘Won’t Back Down’: Parent Trigger Gets the Hollywood Treatment

In September, just as Oscar season is heating up, the movie “Won’t Back Down” will hit the theaters, promising to tell the inspiring story of a teacher and a parent – Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal – who join forces to transform their kids’ struggling school.

According to 20th Century Fox, “Won’t Back Down” is “a powerful story  of parenthood, friendship, hope and courage.”  It is also a fictionalized account of a successful campaign to pass a so-called “parent trigger” law.

Parent trigger laws, which are currently on the books in California, Texas and Mississippi and are being considered in more than 20 other states, allow parents of children enrolled in a “low performing” school to “trigger” change by taking formal, legal control of many school operations. In California, the law allows 51 percent of parents to sign a petition and force actions such as closing the school down completely, replacing the principal, firing 50 percent of the teachers, or converting it into a charter school.

Touted by supporters as parent “grass roots” in action, parent trigger bills are often funded by billionaires, policymakers, and think tanks who support charter school expansion and free market approaches to school reform.

Such a controversial education issue isn’t exactly a recipe for box office success or Oscar gold. Despite the furor in 2010 over “Waiting for Superman,” the pro-charter school documentary was actually a bust at the box office and failed to win an expected Oscar nomination.  With its two likable stars and the David-and-Goliath-against-the-odds facade, “Won’t Back Down” will be more digestible for the general public  – or so supporters of parent trigger laws and charter schools hope.

“Won’t Back Down” attempts to skirts the “teacher bashing” accusation by having a public school teacher (Davis) as one of the two lead characters – along with the parent played by Gyllenhaal – who are fighting to change the system. The fact that the film features a heroic teacher is encouraging. The problem is who is chosen to represent the “powerful and entrenched bureaucracy.”

You guessed it – the local teachers union representative, played by Holly Hunter.

It’s no coincidence that “Won’t Back Down” is funded in large part by Walden Media, the same company that bankrolled  “Waiting for Superman.” Walden Media is owned by Philip Anschutz, a right-wing billionaire who has a long history of supporting right-wing politicians and causes.

In a recent New York Times article, the filmmakers argued that the film will appeal to audiences because of the “human drama” at the core of the story, not the underlying political message. But will audiences leave the theater thinking that unions support the status quo and oppose parental involvement in schools? Probably.

Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Won't Back Down"

Parents are crucial players in school improvement efforts. Their support can advance a student’s ability to achieve, and when parents bring that energy into the school, working side-by-side with teachers, it contributes to a climate of collaboration and success within the classroom. School reform is, after all, a shared responsibility and the most effective policies are those that support policies and practices that link schools, families, and communities to raise student achievement. At Howenstine High Magnet School in Tucson, for example, union-led reform has implemented new initiatives to help struggling students succeed – just one of many sites across the country where collaboration is producing the right kind of reform.

Parent trigger bills, however, are being treated as a silver bullet – just give parents more control over school operations and achievement will increase. Obviously no such quick and easy solutions exist. And as the Los Angeles Times recently noted, the reform options outlined in the California law have “mixed to downright bad records.” In Florida, parent groups actually joined forces to defeat a trigger bill.

For Hollywood and pro-charter school activists, the actual true stories across the country about union collaboration and partnership with parents and communities don’t make for compelling storytelling. Clearly defined lines between the good guys and bad guys are always better – even if it leads to misinformation and charter school propaganda.

And don’t think that well-funded pro-charter school groups like Parent Revolution aren’t excited about “Won’t Back Down” when it arrives in September. The parent trigger campaign has suffered a few setbacks lately, but supporters are hoping the film might help turn things around.

“This is a movie about a social movement in the beginning stages,” Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution told The New York Times, “It would be naïve to think this won’t affect the movement it’s documenting.”

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  • Lori Walton

    I’m thinking I’d like to see Matt Damon debate either Holly Hunter or Maggie Gyllenhaal, or both. Let’s see which type of “Hollywood” star is legitimate enough to bring truth and justice to our public schools. Save Our Schools – join a real movement. @SOSMarch @ParentsAcrossAmerica classsizematters.org

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  • I’m excited for this film and am currently in post production on a documentary about a man who launched a charter school in south central LA. Please check out our new trailer… share, like and support our film, it’s an important topic that will potentially change the face of our embattled public education system!

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  • Laura Ancira

    Please look up Parents Across America website. They give the movie a thumps down and provide details to why the movie is built on false pretenses.

  • Bouton

    so, what about this abhorrently false film financed by big business in a move designed to rape and pillage our education system is so great?…it’s FICTION and lies of the worst sort…I would equate it with the Nazi propaganda films pre-WW2 both in its inaccuracies and it’s scapegoating tone!

  • cj

    So it’s fine if the predominantly liberal Hollywood backs and makes movies that chip away at traditional family values but if one conservative movie maker makes movies that promote conservative values that is not all right? When liberal movie makers twist the truth or outright lie to promote their viewpoints do you cry foul like you are doing in this article and these comments??? I didn’t think so. Liberals are anti-free speech or free thinking. Heaven forbid parents should make decisions for their children. BTW I am a retired teacher and YES the union is a primary cause of the dumbing down of our schools. Protecting bad teachers and maintaining power is their priority, NOT education.

  • Patricia

    I don’t like the message that is being highlighted in the movie , that unions are the villains. I’m a special Ed teacher for children with autism and when the principal tried to put more than 6 kids in my class which absolutely illegally impeded on my students’ rights it was my union rep whom I called. The extra student was removed that same day to keep my class as a 6:1:1 which is what each child’s IEP demands. It is a federal document which outlines the mandates for any child with special needs.

  • Robert Harris

    I applaud you teachers. I am an adult military educator who has no real experience teaching children–but I am a proud parent of four who lives in a nice upper middle-class area. Schools in my area are exceptional, and so are the families. We care about the future of our children and won’t accept second-rate educations for them.

    What I have observed is that children in poor areas, largely populated by minorities, get the short end of the stick. Why? Parental involvement is the key. It is sorely lacking in these poorer areas because these people come from the mindset that they “are owed something.” If it’s free, it’s for me, right? What a shame. It’s a national disgrace that these areas are the way they are… crime rates through the roof, death all around, etc.

    Minority and poor children, in large part, come from single-parent homes and from a lifestyle that breeds laziness. Yes, I said it–LAZINESS. Parental involvement is nearly non-existent. When you are used to holding your hand out for a government check and refuse to work for a living, you also choose to be lazy towards providing a disciplined home life for your children. Chicago or Detroit, anyone? When these parents care more for providing for their children than they do getting free stuff from the government and stealing from hardworking taxpayers, then we will see an improvement in schools within these poorer areas.

    I don’t believe teachers are the problem… crappy parenting is. Poor doesn’t mean someone has to be lazy, and it doesn’t have to be a long-term condition. Parents can change the circumstance of their lives for their children and themselves. Most, unfortunately, choose to be “takers” and drain society of resources and opportunities for their own children. It’s sad but it is reality.

    Teachers, thank you for what you do… fight for the children because goodness knows, some of these parents could care less for their own. What a waste of human existence.

  • Christine

    EVERYONE in the NEA should read the following article on Salon (http://www.salon.com/2012/09/07/dnc_disses_teachers/) about the DNC’s showing this film at the convention, with our leadership’s approval! I am horrified that our association president would consider this film, filled with misrepresentations of what we do, would be considered acceptable. I gave to the Obama campaign last time, worked the phone banks, but will h but old my nose this time because ACA is so vital, no teacher should be under the erroneous assumption that we have a friend in Washington. Today I wish I gave my dues to the AFT!

  • dalpay

    Education never did me any favors. I have a stack of certificates and diplomas which were obsolete before they were issued. It is time to question our own motives while being suspicious of the actions of others.

  • Ellen Morrow

    I am really offended by what Robert Harris said regarding the absence of involvment of poor parents and how they think that they are owed something and are lazy. Are you really in touch with what is happening out there. Or are you just looking at it rose colored middle class glasses.

    I agree parental involvement is key to the success of students, but it isn’t just the parents it is also the community. We all have to get behind education in this country. With regard to the lack of involvment from poor parents, have you ever considered that these parents are working two jobs just to make ends meet, they have no public transportation at night to the school that their children are bused to. That it is the system that create single parent households because of the lack of jobs in the inner city or should I say lack of living wage jobs available. The criminal justice system targets minorities. If you don’t believe that look at how we see movie starts behaving badly, doing drugs and nothing.

    I too am part of the middle class, I am educated, but I am opening my eyes and looking around me to see the diparities that exist in our society. So don’t just throw out the “laziness” card when you have no idea how hard some of these people work and how much they want a better life for their kids.

  • Steve

    There is no way I’m going to help my child at home if they are not interested in school. My best teachers gave me a desire to learn and excel. I saw this movie tonight..Maybe unions of the past were necessary..but when asked what they want today…the answer is “MORE”.. I guarantee the union administrators have better incomes, insurance, and benefits than the teachers, workers they represent and they probably do half as much actual work….

  • Robert

    In my experience the NEA is the most corrupt anti-education organization in America. I taught high school math and paid dues to the NEA for two years. They do not support ordinary rank and file teachers, I never got to vote on any issue or express my opinion on education issues, it was sit down shut up and stuff envelopes with their lies and propaganda. The NEA cooperates extensively with administrators and the academic establishment, to the detriment of students and teachers, unions used to call that a sweetheart deal. My wife and I just saw this movie and although I agree it is right wing propaganda, the message is still true. The NEA only exists to protect their own power and perks. America’s educational system will continue to fail as long as the NEA and current academic establishment stiil run our schools.

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