Last Friday marked the opening of Won’t Back Down, a film that has brought renewed attention to school reform. The film covers a range of education issues, from teacher tenure reform and unions to school choice.
In the film, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the role of Jamie Fitzpatrick, a single mother whose eight- year-old daughter Malia is struggling with a learning disability in her assigned public school, which has received an “F” rating on performance. Malia’s disenfranchised, disinterested, and at times unkind teacher offers no help to Jamie and Malia. Other teachers in the school even point out that Malia’s teacher is the least effective—yet highest paid—teacher because of seniority and tenure rules.
After Jamie receives no help from the school’s administration, and with options such as private and charter schools out of reach (Malia fails to secure a spot during the charter school lottery), she comes close to losing hope—until she learns of the parent trigger law.
The parent trigger law, now available in some states, allows parents to take over and reform their children’s underperforming public schools, even allowing parents to convert it to a charter school. Jamie enlists help from passionate but initially reluctant teacher Nona Alberts, played by Viola Davis. Nona, facing disapproval from her co-workers who frown on leaving the safety net of the union for fear of losing job security, finds inspiration through her own son’s struggles to keep up in the classroom.
In trying to recruit enough parents and teachers to convert the underperforming school into a parent-backed charter school, Nona and Jamie run into opposition. The toughest teacher to recruit is Michael Perry, a spirited and invested teacher in full support of teacher unions. What he cannot see is that the unions prevent the types of reforms that are most needed to help children succeed—a fact that is all too real in school districts across the country.
Highlighting the reality of this problem, the filmmakers worked into the film the infamous quote from the late Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, who said, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”
Won’t Back Down illustrates the struggle many families face in trying to provide their children a quality education. It shows that too many school children do not have access to a good education and demonstrates how the special interests of education unions present a major hurdle to reform. Promisingly, it displays the very real momentum for reform that is swelling across the nation, as parents and reform-minded leaders are refusing to back down for the best interests of children.
Amanda Lucas is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm.