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"Won't Back Down" Presents a Ruling-Class Wet Dream: Teachers and Parents Working to Destroy Their Own Institutions

The movie celebrates parents rising up and taking control of their children’s education—in order to rid themselves of all representation.
 
 
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This story was originally published at Dissent.

“You know those mothers who lift one-ton trucks off their babies?” says Jamie Fitzpatrick, a working-class mom (played Maggie Gyllenhall), in a confrontation with a corrupt union rep in Daniel Barnz’s edu-drama,Won’t Back Down. “They’re nothing compared to me.”

It’s a “you-go-girl” moment. But real moms can’t lift trucks. And just about everything in this movie is as wildly fantastical as that image.

Fed up with her daughter’s horrible public school, Jamie learns about a law that allows parents and teachers to “take over” a failing school. Against the odds, she organizes the powerless and wins over the naysayers. The movie is inspired by real-life “parent trigger” laws, which are pushed by right-wing groups like ALEC, but backed with equal enthusiasm by progressive urban mayors nationwide. The laws allow a charter takeover if 50 percent of the parents agree to it. Charter schools are mostly non-union, and democratically elected officials have little control over them.

Won’t Back Down is liberal Hollywood’s second blast of gas on what was once a bugbear of the Right: the badness of public schools and teachers’ unions, and the magic bullet of hope offered by privatization. The first was Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for Superman. Barnz’s movie, featuring great actresses Viola Davis and Gyllenhall, is far more watchable than Guggenheim’s, but the fantasy world it inhabits is exactly the same. Its release, just on the heels of the Chicago teachers’ strike, feels eerily timely, as its anti-union talking points are just the same as those of Rahm Emanuel and the monied interests of Chicago.

The film’s presentation of the social context is heartbreakingly accurate—poor kids like Jamie’s daughter, Malia, don’t get the education they deserve. But otherwise, the movie presents a Mad Tea Party view of urban education, and of social change itself. In Won’t Back Down, and in the bipartisan neoliberal fairytale that passes for education reform, teachers and parents are good, but the institutions that represent them—unions, the state—are bad. “Empowerment” is desirable, even ecstatic—“Be the change you want to see!” Jamie crows to a throng of cheering parents—but democracy is the enemy. Getting rid of representative government and calling in a private entity to handle things, in our current Opposite Day political moment, represents a glorious triumph of people power. The “parent trigger” invites parents to use their vote to give up their vote—that is, to be enormously powerful for one short moment of direct democracy, which they will use to dispose, in the long run, with the “public” part of public school, and thus with any actual power over their children’s education.

Jamie leads the fictional takeover because her daughter, who is dyslexic, can’t read. Yet not a word is said in the movie about the need for more services and teachers for special needs kids. The school is depicted as depressing and shabby—what about the need for more resources? What about all the extra support poor children need? We see kids acting out and falling asleep in class—where are the social workers to help those kids?

Never mind those wonky details. The problem, we’re repeatedly led to believe, is the teachers’ union. But if unions were to blame for failing schools, wouldn’t unionized public schools in Princeton or Scarsdale also suck?

Hollywood hasn’t been known to let logic get in the way of a good story, and neither do education reformers. Facts are similarly irrelevant. In the movie, Malia’s teacher—a repellent timeserver who locks the little girl in a closet as punishment—can’t be fired because of the union. There are more than a few problems with this scenario. Outside of Tinseltown and the corporate reform imaginary, union members do get fired. In fact, according to data from National Center for Education Statistics, there is no correlation between teacher dismissal rates and union membership. In Massachusetts, where almost all public school teachers belong to a union, the firing rate for experienced teachers is nearly twice that in North Carolina, where just 2.3 percent of the teaching force is unionized.

 
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