The rightfully concerned parents in the new film “Won’t Back Down” use an educational “trigger” law to exercise their democratic right to forfeit any influence they might have over their children’s education.
“The movie,” which blames a teachers’ union for a school’s failures, “celebrates parents rising up and taking control of their children’s education—in order to rid themselves of all representation,” writes Liza Featherstone at Dissent.
“Though the film does not discuss such pesky governance matters, a ‘takeover,’ in real life, usually means that the school is run by a private organization with limited accountability to the public,” she notes. “While the state does decide ultimately which charters to shut down, there is no oversight by the school board, nor the city government, and certainly not the parents.”
That arrangement serves the interests of the film’s billionaire funders, as well as the conservative politicians and corporations who want to convert America’s public schools into for-profit enterprises. A parent trigger law first enacted in California in 2010 allows parents to initiate a charter takeover of a public school if 50 percent of them agree to it. Thanks to the lobbying efforts of the libertarian Heartland Institute and the corporate-led American Legislative Exchange Council, the idea is taking root around the country. And thanks to films like “Won’t Back Down,” the possibility is likely to capture the imaginations of vast numbers of dissatisfied parents who don’t foresee the law’s disastrous, anti-democratic consequences.
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.
… Despite scapegoating teachers’ unions, Won’t Back Down is not an anti-teacher movie. Most of the teacher characters—especially Nona, played by Viola Davis—are heroic. That’s because one of the film’s messages is that busting teachers’ unions is better for teachers. In one scene, a meeting to discuss the possible takeover, Nona argues that losing the union will be worth it, “because we’ll be able to teach the way we want.” (The movie is vague on Nona’s pedagogy and why the union prevents it. In real life, charter teachers certainly don’t have any more control over curriculum than public school teachers do.) It is a ruling-class wet dream: workers who are happy to help destroy their own institutions. By giving up the organization through which they wield power, the fictional teachers reason, they will gain more power.