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"Won't Back Down": A misleading movie with blatant stereotypes

The movie “Won’t Back Down,” which will open in theaters Sept. 28, already is drawing a lot of attention, particularly from educators, parent activists and other public school advocates who believe its portrayal of parent engagement and what happens inside schools is grossly misleading.

The film depicts two mothers’ efforts to reform a failing urban school by spearheading a parent takeover of the school. Sadly, the story is short on facts and long on Hollywood mythmaking.

Rita Solnet, a founding member of the advocacy group Parents Across America, had this to say after attending a screening in Washington, D.C. “Unfortunately, this film depicts a story that is more about good vs. evil than about the truth behind public schools today and the movement to privatize them. Portraying a complex public education system as irretrievably broken—and blaming abusive, older teachers and their rabidly protective unions is much easier than illustrating the complicated truth, I suppose.”

The realities that make true school reform so hard were left out of the film, Solnet says.

In late August, AFT president Randi Weingarten shared her concerns about “Won’t Back Down” in a letter to reporters and movie reviewers. One can’t help but be moved by the characters and story portrayed in the movie, she noted. “The film is successful in driving home the sense of urgency parents and educators feel to do everything they can to provide the best possible education for their children.”

The AFT, Weingarten said, shares that pain and frustration and “firmly believes that every public school should be a school where every parent would want to send his or her child and where every teacher would want to teach.”

“Unfortunately, using the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures I have ever seen—even worse than those in “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ”—the film affixes blame on the wrong culprit: America’s teachers unions,” Weingarten said.

“I don’t recognize the teachers portrayed in this movie, and I don’t recognize that union. The teachers I know are women and men who have devoted their lives to helping children learn and grow and reach their full potential. These women and men come in early, stay late to mentor and tutor students, coach sports teams, advise the student council, work through lunch breaks, purchase school supplies using money from their own pockets, and spend their evenings planning lessons, grading papers and talking to parents. Yet their efforts, and the care with which they approach their work, are nowhere to be seen in this film.”

This movie misses an opportunity to bring parents and teachers together to launch a national movement focused on real teacher and parent collaboration to help all children, Weingarten said. “Parent engagement is essential to ensuring children thrive in the classroom. The power of partnerships between parents, teachers and the community is at the heart of school change.”

The AFT president singled out places across the country where AFT teachers and leaders are partnering with parents and community groups to create real parent engagement that strengthens schools and neighborhoods. These include the South Bronx in New York City where the Community Collaborative to Improve District 9 Schools and the United Federation of Teachers have partnered on a school reform agenda focused on teacher quality, school leadership and family-school partnerships; in Minnesota, where AFT affiliates negotiated the Parent-Teacher Home Visit Project into their contract, training teachers to visit their students’ families to establish bonds with parents outside of the school environment and help parents support their children’s learning; in Connecticut where the AFT helped create a law that provided an avenue for parents to become involved in their children’s schools through the creation of School Governance Councils composed of parents, teachers and community members; and in Cincinnati and elsewhere where AFT locals are working to mitigate the impact that poverty and other out-of-school factors have on students by offering wraparound services, including health and mental health services, meal programs, tutoring and after-school programs.

“Sadly, this film chooses to ignore these success stories and the many others happening across the country. Instead, it promotes the deceptively named ‘parent trigger’ laws, which are marketed as parent-empowerment laws,” Weingarten wrote. “Actually, these laws deny both parents and teachers a voice in improving schools and helping children, by using parents to give control of our schools over to for-profit corporations.”

Parent trigger laws are being pushed by organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which Walden Media owner and oil billionaire Philip Anschutz helps fund (Walden Media is one of the producers of “Won’t Back Down”). Though deeply unfortunate, it is not surprising that the film depicts teachers and unions in such a false and misleading way. Anschutz’s business partner is on record saying that he intends to use Walden Media (which also produced the equally misleading “Waiting for ‘Superman’”) as a way for him to promote their values.

A look at the organizations in which Anschutz invests makes those values crystal clear. He has funded 20 organizations, including ALEC, Americans for Prosperity, and the National Right to Work Legal Defense and Education Foundation. All of these groups operate against the public interest in favor of corporate interests, and all of them actively oppose collective bargaining rights and other benefits for workers. Anschutz also has invested millions in anti-gay and extreme religious-right organizations such as organizations affiliated with Focus on the Family and the Promise Keepers, whose founder declared that “homosexuality is an abomination against almighty God.” 
 
“The last thing that the country and the debate over public education reform need is another movie that maligns teachers, caricatures teachers unions and misleads the American public about what is happening in public education today,” said Weingarten. “Children deserve great schools. That’s how we build great communities. And real public education reform comes from teachers, parents and communities working together to help all kids thrive.”