Won’t Back Down makes its theatrical debut today amidst both Oscar buzz and controversy. In the wake of the teachers’ strike in Chicago, the movie is topical and focuses on the concept of what’s called the “parent trigger,” which is a law that allows parents to organize and reshape an underperforming school. Whether a school is failing is determined by standardized testing and by signing a petition parents can use a series of four triggers, that include firing the principal, firing half of the school’s teachers, closing the school entirely, or converting the school into a charter school.
In the film, Viola Davis, a teacher, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, a parent, work together to get their local Pennsylvania community to reform their failing school, against the opposition of the local teachers union. The controversy over the film’s portrayal of the parent trigger and the casting of the union as the villain hasn’t been lost on those in the national labor movement, who are fighting against the film’s message because they feel it misrepresents their role in improving our crumbling education system.
The idea of a parent trigger didn’t come out of thin air. Parent trigger legislation has been promoted by ALEC, the same group who pushed “Stand Your Ground” laws that many came to learn about during the Trayvon Martin case. ALECs support of the parent trigger is rooted in their work in turning public schools into private charter schools.
ALEC Exposed, who has been working on shedding light on the right wing funding behind this legislation, reported that,“ALEC’s education bills [including the parent trigger] encompass more than 30 years of effort to privatize public education through an ever-expanding network of school vouchers, an idea first advocated by economist Milton Friedman in the 1950s. ALEC bills also allow schools to loosen standards for teachers and administrators, exclude students with physical disabilities and special educational needs, eschew collective bargaining, and experiment with other pet causes like merit pay, single-sex education, school uniforms, and political and religious indoctrination of students.“
They also reported that Won’t Back Down is “a production of Walden Media, owned by billionaire investor and right-wing extremist Philip Anschutz.” Anschutz has direct ties to billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch through their work with ALEC.
In an editorial about the film, President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten said “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. Children deserve great schools. That’s how we build great communities. And real public education reform comes from teachers, parents and communities working together to help all kids thrive.”
Critics feel that the film pits the teachers’ union, along with a “bad” teacher storyline, up against concerned parents who just want the best education for their children. Thus, the movie will likely inspire negative feelings about the unions and educators in struggling schools. Education reform is critically necessary but the conversation here becomes difficult. Is this “reform,” or simply an attempt at privatization to place our education system in the hands of for-profit companies?