School choice film about two single moms in Pittsburgh goes Hollywood to reach Main Street

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ON THE ROAD– This Sept. 23, 2012 photo shows actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, left, and Viola Davis at the premiere of their film “Won’t Back Down,” in New York. (AP Photo/Starpix, Dave Allocca, File)

 

by Alan Scher Zagier

Associated Press Writer

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The movie “Won’t Back Down” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis was a box-office dud, barely earning $5 million and disappearing from theaters soon after its September 2012 release.

But the film’s creators, and a cadre of influential admirers, have more than ticket sales in mind. They hope the classroom drama about two single moms in Pittsburgh trying to save their kids’ failing inner-city school also sparks a wave of activism while igniting widespread legal changes to give parents more control over how their children learn.

“Won’t Back Down” is the centerpiece of a national six-month, U.S. Chamber of Commerce tour of major cities and state capitals, including Albany, N.Y, Indianapolis, Phoenix and San Diego. Business leaders and education reform groups want to leverage the film’s message into broader policy changes modeled on California’s 2010 “parent trigger” law, which allows a simple majority of petition-signing parents to fire principals, boot out poor teachers, take over failing schools and convert them to public charter schools often operated as private businesses.

The private screenings allow the business group’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce and lobbyists from organizations such as StudentsFirst, the education reform group created by former Washington, D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee, to woo state lawmakers over beer and finger sandwiches, as was the case recently in Jefferson City.

Only a handful of Missouri lawmakers watched the movie, and not many more showed up at an education panel discussion the next morning at a Jefferson City art gallery.

But on Thursday, one week later, Speaker of the House Tim Jones filed a parent trigger bill that would allow parents at schools ranking in the bottom 20 percent on state standardized tests to petition for charter status, or gain authority to fire teachers and principals. Jones filed a similar bill last year that didn’t advance out of committee.

“Children should not be the victims of the ZIP code they live in when their education is at stake,” the Eureka Republican said. “I don’t think parents would go such a route unless they have exhausted all other remedies because it is a drastic remedy. But it’s only going to be utilized in drastic situations. So I think parents should be the ones who are ultimately in charge of their children’s education, and not bureaucrats.”

The film was produced by Walden Media, a growing studio that also made the 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman,” another movie education reformers hoped would spark change.

“‘Waiting for Superman’ really talked to the policy wonks,'” Chip Flaherty, the studio’s executive vice president and publisher, told an audience at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank. “What we’re trying to do here is to get the folks on the couch, the folks who haven’t really thought about education, even though it’s the most important issue of our time.”

The film’s promotional materials include a “grassroots toolkit” that encourages inspired viewers to “Stand Up. Speak Out. Fight for Something Better.” Whether that message is taking root remains to be seen.

Critics largely pilloried “Won’t Back Down” for its two-dimensional portrayal of bungling bureaucrats, contract-bound teachers unwilling to stay late to help struggling students and villainous teachers’ unions led by conniving, blackmailing bosses.

At the Missouri viewing, where former teachers outnumbered current lawmakers, several audience members said the film does a disservice to professional educators.

“I don’t know of any teacher who could get their work done without putting in extra time,” said state Rep. Judy Morgan, a Kansas City Democrat who spent nearly four decades as a teacher and union organizer.  “I saw very hard working people in the 39 years I worked in teaching. That’s not what I saw in the movie.”

Seven states have enacted a version of parent trigger: California, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas. More than 20 states have considered such measures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Georgia and Tennessee are among the states where lawmakers are currently considering parent control legislation.

In California, parents at a Los Angeles elementary school recently submitted the state’s third challenge under the influential law. The two previous cases, in the southern California cities of Compton and Adelanto, have been mired by legal fights and staunch opposition from teachers and administrators.

Teacher unions have been the most vocal critics of “Won’t Back Down,” staging protests at a New York premiere and organizing competing parent workshops.

Flaherty, whose studio is named after Walden Pond and is best known for “The Chronicle of Narnia” series as well as children’s films such as “Charlotte’s Web,” and “Bridge to Terabithia,” said the company’s latest effort is driven by a desire for change, not ideology.

“A lot people say the movie is anti-union, and I disagree,” he said. “It’s anti-complacency, it’s anti-status quo and it’s pro-parent.”

The studio also held screenings at the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions in 2012, a gesture that Flaherty said underscores the education reform movement’s bipartisan support. Several big-city Democratic mayors also have embraced parent trigger laws, which were endorsed in June 2012 by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Representatives for both Gyllenhaal and Davis did not respond to interview requests, but Davis has previously suggested the movie’s message transcends political name-calling.

“What I want people to realize is that it truly does take a village, that a good teacher is not made on their own,” she told The Root, a Washington Post-owned website. “They need the help of the community, the involvement of parents, the board of education and the union. It takes a culmination of forces to make (conditions) great.”

Associated Press reporter Chris Blank contributed to this report

Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at  http://twitter.com/azagier

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