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

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.

“Far too many U.S. schools,” the task force concluded, “are failing to teach students the academic skills and knowledge they need to compete and succeed. … The existing systems and structures of education in the United States are laden with bureaucracy and inefficiencies. While there have been efforts to promote reform, many are too short-lived to engender widespread improvements, and successful innovations in one school too rarely spur change in other schools.”

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten agrees that education reform is a necessity, but asserts "Won't Back Down" is not the right catalyst to spur improvements. "This fictional portrayal, which makes the unions the culprit for all of the problems facing our schools, is divisive and demoralizes millions of great teachers," Weingarten recently wrote in the Washington Post.

'The fierce urgency of now'

“Won’t Back Down” is produced by Walden Media, the publishing and production company widely known for making The Chronicles of Narnia films. The new movie isn’t Walden’s first foray into education reform. The 2010 documentary “Waiting For Superman” followed children attending dead-end elementary schools who pinned their educational hopes on winning lotteries for coveted spots at successful charter schools.

“Waiting for Superman” garnered a groundswell of praise, such as an audience award at the Sundance Film Festival and a strong 81-percent score in the Metacritic aggregation metric. The film grossed $6.4 million at the domestic box office, a nice sum for a documentary but proof that a relatively small number of people saw the movie.

Walden Media hopes that “Won’t Back Down” — a feature film headlined by Oscar nominees Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, and Academy Award winner Holly Hunter — will have broader appeal that significantly increases public awareness of education reform and how it affects America’s families and future.

“Equal educational opportunity is the civil rights issue of our time,” said Micheal Flaherty, president of Walden Media and a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board. “If there is one thing we would love to accomplish with this film, it is to establish what Dr. (Martin Luther) King called ‘the fierce urgency of now’ when it comes to giving kids equal educational opportunities.

“There is a very short window where we can impact kids' education — you can count the number of years on one hand that will largely determine where a kid will end up.”

Opposites attract

“Won’t Back Down” may or may not succeed commercially, but it benefits from a cast that brings the story to life. Gyllenhaal is particularly strong as Jamie, an enthusiastic mom whose ebullience overshadows a knack for serially misstating aphorisms and clichés.

“I was first attracted to what the movie was saying,” Gyllenhaal told the Deseret News. “Then (in trying to understand Jamie) I started thinking: ‘Who is this person who can be this strident and this wild and able to walk into the principal’s office and talk like that? Who could do that?’

“And I thought a teenager could do that, someone who’s not a grown-up — because it’s much harder (to do that) as a grown-up. So I thought of Jamie as (emotionally) a teenager — somebody who had had her child really young, and got stuck as not exactly a grown-up when her child was born.”

Additionally, the powerful placidity of Davis —who stars as Nona Alberts, the Adams Elementary teacher who partners with the single mother Jamie — enhances Gyllenhaal’s emotional agility.

“Viola is like a force of nature,” Gyllenhaal said. “We’re so different, but I think it makes for something really interesting. … If you think of (our acting) like a tennis game, it’s like when I would hit her a tennis ball, it came back in a completely different way and place than I ever imagined.

Ripped from the headlines

“Won’t Back Down” is “inspired by actual events.” The film’s primary plotline centers on a “trigger law” that, although fictional, resembles a legal mechanism spurring current events.

In 2010 California passed the first law enabling parents to essentially take over a floundering public school. After obtaining signatures from parents of more than half a school’s students, a parental group becomes vested with the authority to pursue one of four options — a new staff, a new principal, school closure or converting the school to a charter school.

Three states have adopted trigger laws similar to California’s, and 12 more are considering doing the same. By way of comparison, the trigger law in “Won’t Back Down” requires signatures from not only most parents but also a majority of the school’s teachers in order to facilitate a de facto takeover.

The California trigger law has yet to be fully realized. But in the windswept Mojave Desert bedroom community of Adelanto (population: 31,765), a group of parents acquired the necessary signatures in January to invoke the Golden State’s trigger law. And ever since, from courtroom venues to contentious school board meetings, those parents have been fighting tooth-and-nail to install a nonprofit charter operator over Desert Trails Elementary School — where 68 percent of graduating sixth graders failed core proficiency exams last year.

Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Caroline Winter recently covered the ongoing drama in Adelanto with the article “In California, Public School Parents Stage a Coup.”

“‘Won’t Back Down’ is the Hollywood version,” Winter told the Deseret News, noting that the film is not affiliated with anyone in Adelanto or Parent Revolution, the nonprofit organization that actively supports the movement to take over Desert Trails Elementary. “But it’s an interesting case because usually these sorts of movies are made after-the-fact, after the social movement has already happened. ‘Won’t Back Down’ is close enough to what’s happening right now in Adelanto — and it touches on this nerve of parents being incredibly frustrated with their children’s schools — that it may actually have some influence on the movement.”

Based in Los Angeles, Parent Revolution first lobbied California’s legislature to pass the trigger law and now works to help interested parents implement it. It’s no surprise, then, that Parent Revolution’s website is promoting “Won’t Back Down” as the “story of a community … taking back and fixing its broken school” that “hits close to home — a bit too close for far too many.”

The trigger law is controversial. Many parents in Adalanto withdrew their names from the petition, teacher unions are opposed and the school district has spent more than $170,000 in legal fees to fight the takeover.

A Florida woman whose work helped kill a proposed trigger law in Florida told Winter for her Businessweek article that parents can have a positive effect without a trigger law. "(Caroline Grannan of Parents Across America) points out that charters overall don’t outperform public schools," Winter wrote, "and suggests that instead of pulling the trigger, parents should assert their voices by voting in good school board members, getting to know administrators and getting involved in schools."

Some parents feel those traditional methods need to be enhanced.

“Parent Revolution is working with parents at about a dozen schools in California right now,” Winter said. “Ben Austin, Parent Revolution's executive director, has said that he hopes, down the line, that the parent trigger will be thought of less as a revolutionary law and more as simply a bargaining chip that gives parents actual influence so they can have a seat at the table along with teachers unions and school administrators.”

J.G. Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

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