New movie 'Won't Back Down' makes the case for education reform

Published: Monday, Sept. 24 2012 2:24 p.m. MDT

Maggie Gyllenhaal attends the 'Won't Back Down' premiere at Ziegfeld Theater on Sept. 23, 2012 in New York.

Associated Press

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During a pivotal scene in the new movie “Won’t Back Down,” actresses Maggie Gyllenhaal and Holly Hunter stand atop a grassy hill and talk about public education in Pennsylvania. In the background children play on the well-manicured playground of a posh private school.

Gyllenhaal plays Jamie, a single mother who scrapes by with part-time work selling used cars and tending bar. Frustrated by inner-city Adams Elementary School’s widespread apathy for the needs of her dyslexic daughter, Jamie is spearheading a grass-roots petition to seize control of the failing school from the school district.

Hunter’s character, Evelyn, is a high-ranking official at a powerful teachers union. Because a hostile takeover of Adams Elementary would set a bad precedent for the teachers union, Evelyn arranged the meeting with Jamie to casually extend an enticing quid pro quo: If you abandon your petition, I’ll make sure your daughter receives a scholarship to this prestigious private school.

Jamie appears shocked by the unseemly offer, so Evelyn forcefully injects a dose of real-world reality into the conversation.

“Only 2 percent of the children at your daughter’s school will ever go to college,” the union official says. Then, emphatically pointing toward the private-school playground, she continues: “And only 2 percent of these kids won’t (go to college).”

That stark contrast juxtaposing educational opportunities and outcomes is at the heart of “Won’t Back Down,” which the Deseret News screened Sept. 13 and which opens in theaters Sept. 28. The film peppers its core premise of education equality with timely storylines and an A-list cast. The carefully crafted and confident “Won’t Back Down” clearly intends to influence as many Americans as possible at a time when American education is in crisis.

The big picture

Public education in the U.S. increasingly resembles a financial sinkhole: More money is only yielding diminishing results. This year, it is estimated U.S. public schools will spend $571 billion educating 49.8 million students. After adjusting for inflation, American schools are now spending nearly four times as much per pupil as 50 years ago — and 32.7 percent more per pupil than only two decades ago.

Despite the ongoing spending spike, U.S. schools have actually seen their middle-of-the-pack international rankings drop during the past decade. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) measures the aptitude of 15-year-old students all over the world every three years. In 2009, PISA ranked American children 17th in the world in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in mathematics. That amounts to stagnation in reading and significant declines in both science and math, compared to PISA scores in 2003 and 2006.

“The primary obstacle (to improvement) is this inclination on the part of some policymakers to fall back on the status quo — thinking that more money will solve the problem, thinking that one more federal program will solve the problem,” said Lindsey Burke, the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “That hasn’t been the answer — it hasn’t worked for the past half century, and it won’t work in the future.”

Earlier this year the Council on Foreign Relations commissioned a non-partisan task force to evaluate the state of education reform in the U.S. Co-chaired by Joel Klein, formerly chancellor of New York City public schools, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the task force issued a final report emphasizing the urgent need for improvement and innovation, and noting the chilling effect bureaucracy imposes on efforts to change the status quo.

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