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'Won't Back Down': A film to spur parent-led coups on public schools? (+video)

'Won't Back Down' portrays a parent and teacher leading a takeover effort at a failing school. It has become a centerpiece in debates over the best ways to make troubled schools better, and more responsive to parents.

By Staff writer / September 28, 2012

This film image shows Maggie Gyllenhaal (r.) and Viola Davis in a scene from 'Won't Back Down.'

Kerry Hayes/20th Century Fox/AP

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For parents who have struggled to navigate school bureaucracy on behalf of their children, the new film “Won’t Back Down” may offer a great opportunity for vicarious empowerment.

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The film stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a frustrated, feisty parent and Viola Davis as a dedicated teacher who together lead a takeover effort at a failing public school. It’s fictional, but by touting itself as inspired by actual events, it has become a centerpiece in real-world debates over the best ways to make troubled schools better, and more responsive to parents.

Critics of the film say it glamorizes “parent-trigger” laws – mechanisms already passed in seven states by which a majority of parents can force out the staff of a low-performing school or transform it into a public charter school. These laws are about parents in name only, some opponents say, and are just another way to turn schools into autonomous charter schools where normal district rules, such as traditional union contracts, sometimes don’t apply, and where profit-motive can come into play.

The film’s backers say it reflects the problems parents face in public schools, and can prompt them to be more involved in finding solutions.

“It’s not about any one law or any one event.... Our goal is to entertain and inspire through the spirit and the empowerment of the characters – parents and teachers working together to overcome challenges,” says David Weil, CEO of the Anschutz Film Group, which includes “Won’t Back Down” production company Walden Media.

Owned by Christian conservative Philip Anschutz, Walden Media also backed the 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which portrayed teachers unions as a main obstacle to improving education.

“Won’t Back Down” goes “beyond bashing the teachers and unions.... It literally assaults the entire profession,” says Rita Solnet, an activist in Boca Raton, Fla., who has fought a parent-trigger law there and who helped found the national network Parents Across America, which opposes the expansion of high-stakes testing and charter schools. “I worry that this is going to begin to pit parents against teachers and principals,” she says.

Some others see the film portraying teachers in a positive light.

In the film, parents and teachers together petition for changes. “In a traditional school, it would be difficult to get 50 percent of teachers to sign on ..., but that device allows the director to bring teachers to the center of reform,” says Andrew Kelly, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, who has studied parent organizing. “In that respect [this film is] different from ‘Waiting for Superman.’... Teachers are some of the heroes.”

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