The new film Won’t Back Down is opening in theaters this week and it already has teachers unions fuming about its portrayal of them as the key obstacles to education reform. Union activists protested the film’s opening in New York Sunday.
The Examiner caught a preview today and can attest that they have reason to be nervous – it is a highly effective piece of propaganda for the charter school movement.
The film stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a Pittsburgh single mom who, frustrated by the poor education her daughter is getting at her local public school, enlists teacher and fellow mom Viola Davis in an effort to transform their school into a charter school.
It is a classic, inspirational, little-guy-against-the-system feel-good movie. The twist is that once the pair manage to navigate the indifferent bureaucracy they then knock heads with the real problem: the state teachers union. Not only would the new charter school be non-union itself but the union fears that the idea could catch on and other parents would be inspired to follow suit. That would dilute their power. So they push back.
At first, they try to dissuade the teachers and parents. Later, they try to buy off Gyllenhaal’s character with a scholarship to a private school for her daughter. Finally, they threaten to blacklist the teachers and publish attacks against Davis and Gyllenhaal’s character. Davis’s teacher is fired. One teacher is even cruel to Gyllenhaal’s daughter.
The film is all the more effective because it doesn’t caricature the union or come across, at least initially, as an attack on them. Various characters repeatedly stress that the union just wants to protect teacher jobs and what’s wrong with that?
Yet ultimately the film argues that the unions are the guardians of the rotten status quo in education and thus are failing the children they profess to fight for. In the film, bad teachers hang on forever thanks to the system and students are routinely moved up despite their lack of learning.
Won’t Back Down even has a union character recite the infamous (and apocryphal) quote by former American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker: “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.”
A key part of the film’s inspirational story arc is that the main union advocate, played by Holly Hunter, ultimately comes to realize that she is wrong and joins the parents’ side.
The last thing that the country and the debate over public education reform needs is another movie that maligns teachers, caricatures teachers unions and misleads the American public about what is happening in public education today.
Won’t Back Down is the latest in a series of films, from the documentary Waiting For Superman to the comedy Bad Teacher, that have taken aim at teachers unions. Unfortunately for Weingarten, this one has the look of a genuine hit.
Like Waiting for Superman, Won’t Back Down was produced by Walden Media, whose owner is conservative billionaire Philip Anshutz. (Anshutz is also the owner of Clarity Media Group, which owns the Examiner.) That film also made a star of DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who had clashed with teachers union in an effort to reform DC’s notoriously bad schools. Rhee fired hundreds of unde performing teachers as part of an effort to raise standards.
Shortly after the film was released Weingarten helped to engineer the defeat of Rhee’s patron, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, as retaliation for the firings. Without his support for her reforms, Rhee stepped down.
Come to think of it, Rhee’s battle against the union and her ultimate downfall might make for a good Hollywood film. At the rate things are going, it might just happen too. I see Sandra Oh playing Rhee on the big screen …