Carolina Critic

‘Won‘t Back Down’ Glosses Over Some Big Problems

Oct. 29th, 2012
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• “Won’t Back Down,” directed by Daniel Barnz, Walden Media, 121 minutes, released Sept. 28.

Before “Won’t Back Down” begins, former Washington, D.C. schools boss Michelle Rhee, now head of Students First in Sacramento, Calif., appears on the screen. The movie you are about to see, Rhee says, is about “parents and teachers versus a bureaucratic educational system.” She says to read the handout that came with your ticket. At this showing, unfortunately, nobody got a handout.

The story was “not made in Hollywood,” Rhee says, but the movie was, which explains the central problem. The American movie industry is a closed union shop fond of puffery such as “Norma Rae,” starring unions as heroes. In “Won’t Back Down,” teacher unions are supposed to be the bad guys.

The story supposedly is “inspired by actual events.” That would be the “parent trigger,” a law that allows parents to turn a failing school into a charter school, and which teacher unions oppose with their considerable money and power. That struggle has been going on in Compton, Calif., but “Won’t Back Down” is set in Pittsburgh, Pa.

There, Jamie Fitzpatrick, (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a single mom, works a car lot by day and tends bar at night. Her daughter Malia — get the reference, Mr. President? — is dyslexic and having trouble at the Adams public school, staffed entirely by union drones, with the possible exception of Nona Alberts, (Viola Davis) whose son Cody has difficulties of his own. The women become “parentroopers” and team up on a petition to take over the school. They run head on into union and bureaucratic opposition, poorly dramatized.

One sees none of the physical dangers typical of many urban schools. Incompetence and lethargy are apparent but the audience sees no union bosses defending those clearly unfit for the classroom, which happens all the time. The film notes that teachers get tenure after two years but never conveys the reality that in government schools bad teachers are practically impossible to fire. Jamie and Nona never display the outrage this injustice deserves.

A union boss gets to make his best arguments and quote Clarence Darrow. But no character gets to explain why a 19th-century industrial model is completely unsuitable for the instruction of autonomous human beings. Nobody explains why, as FDR believed, collective bargaining with government is a bad idea. With the education bureaucracy, it’s also more tell than show.

A secretary tells Jamie that the school board headquarters is awful and leaves it at that. Bureaucrat Evelyn Riske (Holly Hunter) says that many board members send their own children to an upscale private school. But the film does not show the board members in their BMWs dropping off the kids.

Jamie and Nona are intelligent women, though neither raises the key question: Instead of funding a failed system, why can’t the government fund the parents and students and let them select the school — government-run or independent? That is the pattern in K-12 schools in cities such as Milwaukee, and in higher education, but nobody makes the argument. Instead Jamie and Nona work within the system, persuading teachers, parents, and bureaucrats to take their side.

Jamie sweet-talks Michael Perry, a creative teacher who remains a committed union member. Nona works the bureaucratic side and soon faces a backlash and dismissal over some technicality, a highly unlikely scenario. Teachers retaliate against Malia in the classroom, but “Won’t Back Down” fails to dramatize the fury of establishment opposition to virtually any reform.

The closest this film gets to cinéma vérité is this line from Jamie: “The whole system is broken. It’s dead.” But one wouldn’t know it from the story, which lurches toward a Big Decision by the school board. Someone in favor of the petition says that this is about “taking back our public schools.” That gives the game away and leaves out the real back story, chronicled in the 1983 report A Nation at Risk.

The entire government K-12 system is a vast collective farm of ignorance and mediocrity. At Sacramento State University, near Michelle Rhee’s current headquarters, 62 percent of freshmen need remedial math and English. A strong case can be made that the system is unreformable, and that absent full school choice for all, as a matter of basic civil rights, nothing ultimately will change.

Many activists, including some liberal Democrats, have campaigned for full school choice, a G.I. Bill for kids. Recall Polly Williams, architect of the Milwaukee choice program, who said, “Bill and Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be the only people in public housing who get to send their kids to private schools.”

That’s a stronger line than anything in “Won’t Back Down,” and still relevant. Barack and Michelle Obama send Malia and Sasha to the same private school, Sidwell Friends, as the Clintons and Carters. President Obama also killed off funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a popular and successful school choice program for poor inner-city students.

Those are some “actual events” that could inspire a better movie than “Won’t Back Down,” which unfortunately does. Like Michelle Rhee, this film wants to work within the very system that Jamie proclaims broken and dead. Teacher unions, perhaps the most reactionary force on today’s scene, have nothing to fear from this effort, but all is not lost.

In a classic Hollywood ending, the failed Adams school gets a chance to give the kids some hope. For all its faults, this film may inspire someone to tackle the anti-reform reactionaries with a theme like, “let my people go.”

Lloyd Billingsley is a contributor to Carolina Journal.