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As school reform, 'Won't Back Down' doesn't measure up

Instead of humanizing the education debate and bringing clarity and nuance to it, the movie is more likely to add to the ill-informed rancor surrounding the issue.

September 28, 2012
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal, right, and Viola Davis in a scene from "Won't Back Down."
Maggie Gyllenhaal, right, and Viola Davis in a scene from "Won't… (Kerry Hayes / 20th Century…)

Has school reform gotten sexy? Not likely, even if it is the subject of a feature film, "Won't Back Down," opening Friday and starring such big names as Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis. Rather, the movie is, as many reform efforts tend to be, simply well funded. In this case, backing comes from Walden Media, which is owned by conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz and which was also the force behind the documentary love song to charter schools "Waiting for Superman."

With that kind of background, it's not surprising that "Won't Back Down" concludes that California's "parent trigger" law — under which parents can force a major change at a school if half or more sign a petition — is a wholly wonderful thing that can, say, turn around the reading problems of a dyslexic child almost overnight, as it does in the movie. Although the film claims to have been inspired by actual events, the truth is that there hasn't yet been a school takeover via parent trigger (and the parent takeover in the movie only slightly resembles how the law works).

The movie does an injustice to both serious school reform and the education system it targets by smugly oversimplifying the problems in public schooling — and the remedies — to the point where they are nearly unrecognizable. And whose bad idea was it to have a white mom be the chief "rescuer" of a low-performing inner-city school when in reality almost all of the students at such schools are black and Latino — as are the parents who try to bring about change?

In this film, there isn't a single decent person who doesn't join the reform side. The emblematic "bad teacher," union boss and unhelpful principal aren't just uncaring, they're immoral monsters. The Teach for America recruit is inspiring and just plain hot. And even though the school will be nonunion when it completes its transition to an unexplained model that doesn't exist in the real world, no teacher dedicated to children's welfare will need to worry about losing a job. Try telling that to the teachers who signed the petition for Locke High School in South Los Angeles to go charter and then weren't offered jobs by Green Dot.

Turning around schools is complicated, difficult work that often doesn't succeed despite the best intentions of those who try. Some charters are models of excellent education, but equal numbers do a worse job than traditional public schools. The big screen has the potential to humanize the education debate and bring clarity and nuance to it. "Won't Back Down," though, is more likely to add to the ill-informed rancor surrounding school reform than to our understanding of it.

—Karin Klein

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