"Won't Back Down" Fights the Wrong Battles
"Won't Back Down," starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, is the latest in a series of agitprop films (including last year's notorious "Waiting for Superman," and another film called "Detachment," which opens in New York and L.A. next month) that seeks to dramatize the American education crisis for the big-screen. Both "Waiting for Superman" and "Won't Back Down" suggest that the panacea for America's failing schools is privately funded charter schools, which--in their freedom from the control of evil teachers' unions--automatically allow for a higher caliber of classroom instruction for the youngsters. (The connection between getting rid of teachers' unions and improving instruction is always vaguely delineated; it usually has to do with the erroneous assumption that the union's sole function is to keep incompetent teachers from being fired, and the equally erroneous misconception that teachers' unions have any say in curriculum content to begin with.)
So, I actually find the idea for this movie bemusing, in and of itself. "Won't Back Down" is a drama loosely based on "parent trigger" laws, which allow parents to sign a petition transforming their failing public school into a charter school. And, while this bit of legislation is certainly good fodder for discussion and debate, it makes for a laughably boring movie idea! I can't understand who goes out to see this movie on a Saturday night; I'd rather stay in and watch re-runs of "Game of Thrones."
But irrespective of its lack of appeal to my cinematic tastes, "Won't Back Down" pushes a message that I don't agree with--namely, that instead of making efforts to improve failing public schools, we should shut them down and change them into charter schools. For too many high-needs schools in New York City, this has been an insidious trend: when a school shows low test scores for several years consecutively--as many do, since the single strongest correlate to standardized test scores is family income--the Board of Education simply shunts more and more kids, including many ESL and Special Needs kids into it, then further penalizes the school for failing to raise scores, and eventually shuts the school down entirely. In its place, small schools and charter schools crop up. (I'll discuss charter schools in a different post.) Virtually no effort goes into fixing the problems with the existing schools, either by helping teachers meaningfully improve instruction, reducing class-sizes, adding resources, or providing students with opportunities for outside tutoring and enrichment. Instead, the public money is diverted into the charter schools, which at the end of the day--despite also obtaining outside funding from private organizations--do not even take in all the displaced students from the closed-down school.
Moreover, as Liza Featherstone in Dissent Magazine and Nancy Schniedewinde and Julie Woestehoff in Huffington Post point out, charter schools are run by private organizations (the Broad Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) which--despite good intentions--have little accountability to the public, deep pockets, and dubious records of achievement. The effect of the parent trigger laws is to privatize public education; it is by no means a guarantee of improving schools. I'd be interested to know if parents who sign these petitions (in Compton, one is tied up in court right now) are truly aware of parent trigger laws' effects. As for "Won't Back Down," the very idea of a film which lauds a community's decision to turn a public school over to faceless private control seems too bizarre; it's as though I were watching the entire movie in re-wind. Definitely not what I'll be seeing this weekend!