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Film ‘Won’t Back Down’ sure to increase debate over ‘parent trigger’ school laws

Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal

In the forthcoming movie “Won’t Back Down,” Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a working-class single mother outraged by conditions at her daughter’s Pittsburgh elementary school.

She is shown in the trailer sprinting down a hallway, freeing the girl from a janitor’s closet to which a teacher banished her and promising, “I’m going to get you out of there.”

As over-produced music swells, the protagonist goes one better: With the help of Oscar nominee Viola Davis, cast here in the role of a righteous educator willing to risk the ire of her colleagues in order to win her pupils a decent education, she takes over the failing, inner-city school.

Their foe: A villainous teachers’ union rep, played by Holly Hunter. The big-budget promo leaves out the details, but we are left with the impression that the punishing, prissy schoolmarm and her labor protector threaten Gyllenhaal’s moppet.

Distributed by 20th Century Fox, the film, billed as “inspired by actual events,” opens Sept. 28 nationwide.

The actual events? Well, that’s where the made-for-Hollywood trope breaks down. They haven’t exactly, precisely happened yet, even if the conservative billionaire behind the film wishes they had.


A trailer for the forthcoming motion picture “Won’t Back Down.”

The movie’s quest is modeled on the school takeovers imagined by supporters — to be clear, on both sides of the political aisle — of so-called parent-trigger laws, which empower fed-up communities to close failing schools or convert them into charters.

Seven states currently have parent-trigger laws on the books. During this year’s Minnesota legislative session, two versions were introduced at the Capitol. Neither passed.

The first and most famous of the laws is California’s, passed in 2010. Parents there have twice tried to pull the metaphorical trigger, and twice ended up in the courts. An early effort in Compton was stopped after the school district challenged proponents’ gathering of signatures on the required petitions.

On Monday, a San Bernardino Superior Court judge sided with parents in Adelanto, northeast of Los Angeles, who want to take over an elementary school and convert it into a charter. The district’s school board was reported to be considering an appeal.

Pennsylvania, where Gyllenhaal’s and Davis’ Erin Brockovich-scale campaign is set, does not have a parent-trigger law. In the movie, the state’s law deviates radically from the real-life ones in that it requires the involvement of teachers.

It is, of course, not the first time Hollywood has resorted to a deus ex machina to circumnavigate some inconvenient truthiness — in this case, that you can’t discuss the merits or demerits of parent-trigger laws without considering the role of teacher unions in education reform.

That ideological hairball is, of course, what choked the controversial documentary “Waiting for Superman,” released two years ago to much critical acclaim, much political unhappiness and little box-office success. Rightly or wrongly — and no one was neutral on this one — it was depicted as anti-union.

“Superman” was funded by Bill Gates, the progressive-leaning Participant Media and Walden Media, which is funded by the aforementioned billionaire, Philip Anschutz. This time, Walden hopes to capture a broader audience.

Already, large segments of that broader audience are fretting that the movie will demonize teachers and romanticize an as-yet-unproven policy.

Whether they are right won’t be known for two months yet. Still, it seems likely that the filmmakers are at least as interested in creating reality as they are in reflecting it.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/27/2012 - 10:10 am.

    We’ve seen this movie before

    Sigh.

    Demonizing teachers and romanticizing as-yet-unproven policy have become a kind of recreational pursuit among a certain segment of the population over the past couple decades. I’m a fan of all the actresses involved, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t each do an excellent job of portraying their assigned “types” in the film. That won’t make the film’s portrayal of public education more accurate (accuracy depends upon the script, not the actors), but it’ll confirm the biases of the already-hostile-to-teachers as well as union defenders.

    So, it’ll be very well-acted teacher-bashing, apparently. I’m not enthused.

  2. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 07/29/2012 - 12:12 am.

    Latest rankings of state eudcation

    Of the 22 right to work states, 16 are in the bottom 25, and none are in the top 10.

    When you have a hypothesis, like “Collective bargaining and unions are bad for education”, and all tangible evidence seems to indicate no correlation, why would you stick with your hypothesis.

    I mean, 22 states have enacted what these folks dream of, and the evidence is that they are terrible. I’m not saying unions make schools better, or worse.

    Meanwhile, Noble Laureates say there is an 8 to 1 ROI on early childhood education.

    Why is there a laser focus on unions when there is no correlation between them and educational outcomes?

    Why were there zero early childhood bills, when there is ample proof for their bang for the buck.

    When will reporters finally state the obvious that the battle against unions has nothing to do with helping kids?

  3. Submitted by Kent Fralish on 07/30/2012 - 04:11 am.

    Latest rankings of state education

    When will teachers finally state the obvious that the battle for unions has nothing to do with helping children.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 07/30/2012 - 10:41 am.

      Helping Children

      When will the people behind these kinds of films admit that their agenda has nothing to do with helping children.

      If you are interested in reforming education, as opposed to just union-bashing, it helps to work with actual facts instead of just making things up.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/30/2012 - 12:13 pm.

    Public schools: no script can match reality…

    Beth, if you are outraged about this film, what say ye to a slice of real life teachers’ union villainy?

    Please use your keen eye for such things to point out the ideological hairball in this:

    Wall Street Journal: Teachers Unions Go to Bat for Sexual Predators

    “By resisting almost any change aimed at improving our public schools, teachers unions have become a ripe target for reformers across the ideological spectrum. Even Hollywood, famously sympathetic to organized labor, has turned on unions with the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman'” (2010) and a feature film, “Won’t Back Down,” to be released later this year. But perhaps most damaging to the unions’ credibility is their position on sexual misconduct involving teachers and students in New York schools, which is even causing union members to begin to lose faith.”

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390443437504577547313612049308.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

    I’m confident there is some point at which even leftists will accept the fact that the mere presence of a self-serving, blue collar trade labor union in public schools precludes all realistic chance of meaningful reform….but for the life of me if this isn’t it, I don’t know what it is.

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