Won’t Back Down is a feel-good film about the power of a single individual, armed with a vision and a voice, to move a bureaucracy.
Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a working class mother of a dyslexic second grader, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind). Malia has been assigned to the classroom of the weakest teacher in the school, and Jamie wants desperately to find a solution for her failing child. She asks the teacher to help Malia after school; she tries to have Malia transferred to the classroom of a better teacher; she signs up for the lottery of a successful charter school, where Malia must compete with 100 applicants for just three open slots. She even begs the administrator of her former school to take Malia back.
Eventually Jamie hears about a “parent-trigger law,” which provides a way for parents to take over a failing school. (“Parent-trigger law” is perhaps a poor choice of name, considering the level of frustration many parents experience, and the number of shootings that have occurred in schools recently!)
Parent-trigger laws are a fairly new concept in US public education. They were first introduced in California a few years ago, and six other states have followed so far. They apply only to failing schools, and require a majority of the parents to sign a petition and support the change. A successful bid can result in replacing the administration or faculty, creating a charter school, or closing the school and reassigning the students to better schools. Of course, teachers and their unions oppose these takeover bids, sometimes with threats and repercussions against the children of the most vocal parents.
Tenured teachers can’t be fired for being poor teachers, so they are moved from school to school. Woe to the children who are stuck in their classrooms for an entire year!
In the film, Jamie says “Let’s take over the school” with the same spritely optimism as Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland saying “Let’s put on a show.” Through sheer force of personality and salesmanship, Jamie convinces a tired and frustrated teacher, Nona (Viola Davis), to join her, and together they work to gain the support of teachers and parents. But it isn’t that easy. They must first recruit 400 parents and 18 teachers, and file a 400-page document describing their new school — while fighting union leaders and school administrators with six-figure salaries to protect and an arsenal of dirty tricks to employ.
Along the way she cheerfully tramples the property rights of her two employers by giving away free booze to potential supporters at her bartending job and working on the school project during her receptionist duties at a car dealership. Her boss is portrayed as a sharp-nosed busybody, but she has a right to expect an employee’s full attention at work, doesn’t she? And what about Jamie’s responsibility as a mother? She complains about her daughter not getting extra help from the teacher, but shouldn’t she be helping her own child learn to read? How hard is it to read with a child at a second grade level?
The film addresses most of the right problems, with union bylaws and tenure protection at the top of the list. A teacher refuses to stay after school to help a dyslexic student with her reading; it turns out that teachers are actually prevented from staying after school by their union contract. An administrator responds to each complaint with the same tired phrase, “We are addressing that,” as a way to placate the parent while promising nothing. He acknowledges that tenured teachers can’t be fired for being poor teachers, so they are moved from school to school. Woe to the children who are stuck in their classrooms for an entire year!
(Years ago I complained about a teacher who showed movies almost every day, while she played games on the computer. When I told the administrator that she showed The Lion King that day, his face darkened. “Lion King??” he raged. “I told them they couldn’t show Lion King!” Then he shrugged and added, “I know she’s a lousy teacher. There’s nothing I can do. She has tenure.” And she was the department chair to boot. I moved my daughter to a private school. But many parents can’t afford that option.)
So why don’t more parents and teachers take over their failing schools? Time is the biggest deterrent. It usually takes three to five years to get through the process of gathering support, filing papers, writing a charter, hiring teachers, and selecting curriculum. By that time, most children will have moved on to middle school. It requires a person with genuine dedication to the neighborhood to be willing to go through this effort for someone else’s kids. In the film, one teachers’ union administrator complains cynically, “When students start paying union dues, I will start protecting the interests of children,” and he’s right about that. One of the biggest problems with the public school system is that the payer is not the recipient of the service.
Moreover, it takes skill and experience to teach a class or manage a school. That same union administrator suggests that having parents take over a school is “like handing over the plane to the passengers,” and to a certain extent, he is right about that, too. Consider the kinds of neighborhoods that harbor failing schools. Parents with good educations, good jobs, and good incomes will simply move to another neighborhood, or deposit their children in private schools, as I did. They are too busy earning a living to have time to run a school.
Nevertheless, this film ends with cheering crowds and a crescendo of violins. (But is it any surprise that they manage to succeed? In a matter of months? Does Secretariat win the Triple Crown?) But there is no true victory in this film. A charter school may be better than a failing public school, but it is still based on a failing premise: although they are run by parents and teachers, these are still government schools. Salaries are still funded by local property taxes, and students are still tested according to federal standardized guidelines. The film even ends with a rap version of Kennedy’s famous message: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The first is socialism, the second is feudalism. Neither bodes well for creativity and individual success. Whatever happened to “Do what you can to take care of yourself”?
The biggest deterrent to good education — standardized testing — isn’t even addressed in this film. I could write a whole treatise on the unintended consequences of “No Child Left Behind.” We now have an entire generation of young people who have been taught that there is only one correct answer to any question: the one they have been spoonfed by the teacher. Creativity and innovation are rewarded with an F.
A charter school may be better than a failing public school, but it is still based on a failing premise.
As for the teachers? They’re getting burned out too. I attended an early evening screening. Just before the film began, several groups of women walked into the theater. All of them talked to each other throughout the screening, looked at their cell phones, and went out to buy treats or visit the bathroom. I would have been more distracted, had I not been used to this kind of behavior; I’m a teacher. I interviewed these ladies after the show. You guessed it: most were teachers. They probably didn’t even realize that they were acting like their students.
Won’t Back Down is an earnest little film, one that is well intentioned but overlong and overacted. Viola Davis looks too tired to be a fighter; and Holly Hunter, normally such a fine actress, is particularly posed and affected in her delivery, her trademark speech impediment, and her gigantic hairstyle. Maggie Gyllenhaal does her best to ignite the enthusiasm of the cast in the same way her character tries to ignite the enthusiasm of the community, brightening her eyes and smiling until her face nearly explodes with goodwill. But it doesn’t work. At just over two hours, the film is 30 minutes too long for a story with no action and little suspense.
Moreover, although Won’t Back Down claims to be “inspired by true events,” it is neither true nor realistic. I couldn’t find a single actual case in which parents have successfully taken over a school under a parent-trigger law. Some have tried, but my research did not turn up any that have succeeded.
If you are genuinely interested in films about failing school systems and want to know how to fix them, I recommend two recent documentaries: Waiting for Superman (2010, directed by Davis Guggenheim) and The Cartel (2009, directed by Bob Bowdon).