Q&A: “Won’t Back Down” Producer Brings School Choice to Big Screen
Rob Bluey / Sarah Morris /
The movie “Won’t Back Down” opened yesterday in more than 2,500 theaters across America. The film brings to the big screen the highly charged issue of education reform by showcasing how two committed parents take on the establishment.
With a cast of stars, including Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, the movie has already prompted protests from union leaders like Randi Weingarten and opponents of school choice.
The movie, set in Pittsburgh, is based on actual events that stemmed from the parent-trigger law in California. The law allows parents to organize and, with the support of at least 50 percent, implement reform measures such as converting to a charter school or changing leadership.
Earlier this week, one of the films producers, Chip Flaherty of Walden Media, visited Heritage to chat with talk-radio host Ernest Istook on Istook Live!, which airs daily from 9 a.m. to noon ET. Below is an abridged transcript of the interview.
ISTOOK: Everybody that’s a parent is concerned with the quality of their child’s education. Government gets in the way in so many ways. We’ve been talking about the draconian measures of school lunches that are causing so much controversy. But in your case, this movie is about schools and it’s about parents who decide they need to really get involved.
FLAHERTY: Exactly. It is a major motion picture. We have an unbelievable cast of Holly Hunter, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Volia Davis. And it’s really a celebration of the fact that parents need a seat at the table when it comes to their children’s education.
ISTOOK: It’s about parents. It’s about schools. And people are saying “Oh, OK we’ve seen a lot of movies that are about school and have kids and parents.” But this is not exactly Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
FLAHERTY: No, not at all. It’s truly like an underdog movie. It’s like Rocky, like Erin Brockovich. It’s a situation where — and it’s my favorite type of story like It’s a Wonderful Life — where you find a common person, in this case two moms who realize something cosmic. They’re able to turn around their school and give their kids a better chance for a better future. And with it the other kids in the neighborhood.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors has said that if you can turn around education, that’s the best poverty plan and the best crime prevention plan. Education really is the key to everything. And the beauty of this film is it’s wildly entertaining, it’s one of the best movies of the year, but you go into it and via the journey of the characters you identify with, by the end you’ve learned a lot more about education and you’re hopefully inspired to go out and make change in your community.
ISTOOK: And in this case, it’s not about triumphing over some rival school’s sports team. It’s about triumphing over the lethargy and the bureaucracy of the education establishment that gets in the way of getting your kids prepared for their future.
FLAHERTY: You’re exactly right. At the end of the day, it’s an anti-complacency film. Because right now in education we have too many people that are complacent. They just want to maintain the status quo because that keeps their power structure in place. And we really need a shift in that paradigm. We need parents to have a seat at the table. Right now, you have the room and you have the parents out in the corridor on a folding chair. And that is just not acceptable because no one is more invested in their kid’s future than parents. We need to get them into the same room, get them to the table so they can talk to the unions, they can talk to the school board and they have a real voice.
ISTOOK: Now, what area of the country is this taking place in? Because a key thing about this movie is that what enables them to get involved is a parent-trigger law that allows parents to get in there and take charge if the school is failing their children. So in what area of the country is this taking place? Because I know there are only a handful of schools in the country that have a law like that.
FLAHERTY: The parent-trigger movement started in California back in 2010. This movie is set in Pennsylvania, in Pittsburgh at a failing elementary school. Pennsylvania does not have the parent trigger yet. Right now it’s in seven states in the country and 12 states are deciding whether or not they’re going to enact it. Like many things, it’s going to be something that starts out in California and sweeps its way across the country.
Within the movie, what happens is, Maggie’s character, which I mentioned is a common hero achieving cosmic things — she works in a used car dealership during the day, tends bar a couple of nights just to try to make to make some many for her only daughter. She’s a single mom and her daughter is being crushed in the elementary school; she’s in the third grade and can’t even read. And Maggie just wants to protect her child. So she goes to the teacher and asks if she can stay after school and help her daughter. The teacher says no; the union rule is door shut at 2:30 and can’t help. So Maggie goes to the principal and says, “I want another teacher.” And the principal says, “No, she has tenure and I can’t get rid of her.”
So Maggie keeps on trying all of these different things and she slowly becomes radicalized by the situation. Not because she has the time to do it — like so many reluctant heroes in life — but because she has an objective to defend and fight for her daughter. And we go on that journey with her and then she joins forces with Viola Davis, and eventually they’re able to utilize this parent-trigger law to give them something so they can really finally bargain and get to the table and have some power. And we talked about shifting that power to put power back in the hands of the parents and they’re able to take over the school.
ISTOOK: I know in the movie there will be some exposition to explain to people what the parents-trigger law is but maybe it would be good if you filled people in a little bit now in case they think it’s a parent bringing a gun to school.
FLAHERTY: Like any legislation, it has a provocative term. But really what it means is that if you are in a failing school and if you get 50 percent or more of the parents in that school district to sign a petition to say that they want change in the school, then you’re able to effectuate certain kinds of changes. You could have a charter school come in and take over the school. You could change the principal and leadership. There are a couple different steps you can take.
I think with any great legislation, the power of it is because parents can finally have a say. They will finally be able to have a “bargaining chip” and finally be listened to by the school board, by the unions, by the teachers.
All parent trigger means is if parents can get more than 50 percent of signatures of parents in that district, then they have the power to take over the school. It’s happening right now in Adelanto, CA, at a school where 68 percent of the kids were below reading level. The parents took over that school and right now it’s a big court fight and everything else. But so far, it is turning out for the parents.
ISTOOK: This is an era when public employees, and in particular school teachers, really push back against someone that threatens them. Now, I know you don’t mean to be a threat to them; you’re concerned about the kids. But are you getting some push back from places or organizations like teachers unions relating to your film?
FLAHERTY: Very much so. And it really is a manifestation of human nature. We talked about that power paradigm. If you’re currently holding all the cards, you don’t want to see any shift in power. And I have to look at myself and say if I was holding all the power, I would probably feel the same way. Any time there is change to the status quo, it’s difficult. But what we try to do — and I think it’s very nuanced in the film and very fairly done — in the movie one teacher, who is an excellent teacher, talks about how the union came in to defend one of his favorite teachers growing up. Sometimes the power can be used to have positive results, but I think the pendulum has swung too far.
The film is rated PG and runs about two hours. Here’s the movie trailer: