"Won't Back Down" demonizes teachers & their unions



What you should know about "Won’t Back Down" -  talking points 

Parent trigger, or parent tricker? 

Real parent engagement - real reform
Union-led parent partnership solutions
Useful links

Blogs on the film
"Won't Back Down": Film reviews 


Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Won't Back Down"

You probably have heard the buzz about the new movie, “Won’t Back Down,” which opened in theaters nationwide on September 28.


The story is compelling and the acting is reportedly great (many predict Academy Award nominations)


But “Won’t Back Down” is a dishonest Hollywood portrayal of the problems in our educational system. The movie was funded by the very people who want to privatize and profit from our schools.


As Florida parent activist Rita Solnet wrote:  “…this movie was funded by charter school privatizers seeking fistfuls of dwindling education dollars. … But before our nation agrees that it is a neat idea for parents to demand takeovers, everybody has to know the real issues that caused the problems. People can choose to blame teachers unions, but they should remember that the problems people are trying to fix in public education are the same in states with unions and without unions.” 


Read Solnet’s entire piece here.

What you should know about "Won’t Back Down" -  talking points

• "Won't Back Down" is this year's "Waiting for Superman," exept it's fictional and it's Hollywood. And it's worse.


10 reasons to skip “Won’t Back Down”

1. "Won’t Back Down" is “inept and bizarre.” 

Andrew O’Hehir, reviewing for Salon.com, writes that "Won’t Back Down' is “a set of right-wing anti-union talking points disguised (with limited success) as a mainstream motion-picture-type product.”


2. "Won’t Back Down" promotes an ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council]-model bill. The film promotes the “parent trigger” law, an ALEC-created policy proposal that turns public schools into privately run charter schools. ALEC also brought you Arizona’s draconian immigration law, Pennsylvania’s disenfranchising voter ID law and Wisconsin’s union-busting Act 10.


3. "Won’t Back Down" is deeply deceptive. The “parent trigger” law promoted by the film has only been used twice in real life. Both instances have created “legal and community disasters,” writes Salon.com’s Alexander Zaitchik.


4. "Won’t Back Down" promotes horrible (and untrue) stereotypes about teachers. The film shows public school teachers as listless and uncaring. One teacher is even shown locking a girl in a closet. As Randi Weingarten writes in The Washington Post:


"I don’t recognize the teachers portrayed in this movie….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."


5. "Won’t Back Down" helps fund anti-union causes. Walden Media, which produced the film, is owned by Philip Anschutz, whose foundation has donated $210,000 to the anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.


6. "Won’t Back Down" avoids the real issues. Writing in variety, Peter DeBruge points out the film is “grossly oversimplifying” education reform. It’s a “disingenuous pot-stirrer [that] plays to audiences’ emotions rather than their intelligence.”


7. "Won’t Back Down" is a “heavy-handed lecture disguised as art.” 

Elizabeth Weitzman, reviewing for the New York Daily News, begins “I am neither anti-charter schools nor anti-union.” In the film, however, “the plot is just a clothesline on which to hang an unabashedly biased diatribe….Every so often they remember they’re writing a movie and not attending a debate, so they’ll shove in a rushed romance, or an out of nowhere personal revelation.”


8. "Won’t Back Down" is being heavily promoted by the right-wing. Groups promoting the film include the Heritage Foundation, Freedom Works and the Chamber of Commerce, who are also lending support to right-wing candidates.


9. "Won’t Back Down" scapegoats teachers and their unions, but ignores all other factors. As Liza Featherstone writes in Dissent:


"Jamie [the film’s protagonist] leads the fictional takeover because her daughter, who is dyslexic, can’t read. Yet not a word is said in the movie about the need for more services and teachers for special needs kids….


"Never mind those wonky details. The problem, we’re repeatedly led to believe, is the teachers’ union. But if unions were to blame for failing schools, wouldn’t unionized public schools in Princeton or Scarsdale also suck?


"Hollywood hasn’t been known to let logic get in the way of a good story, and neither do education reformers."



10. "Won’t Back Down" isn’t your best option. Going to the movies this weekend? Try the musical comedy "Pitch Perfect," the sci-fi thriller Looper, or, of course, this classic re-release about a brave teacher (well, archaeology professor).


• "Won't Back Down" was produced by conservative oil billionaire Philip Anschutz. It  portrays teachers' unions as an obstacle to education reform. It attempts to hide its true anti-worker agenda behind an emotionally charged storyline about parents taking over a failing school.


• "Won’t Back Down" is also bankrolled by conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch.


• The movie is flawed, inaccurate, and intended to promote a political agenda to privatize education.


• The movie is intended to build support for “parent trigger” laws that allow charter school operators to collect petitions from parents. If a majority of parents sign, it enables charter schools to take over public schools.


• Parent trigger laws are being pushed in legislatures throughout the country by organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which Walden Media owner and oil billionaire Philip Anschutz helps fund. The emotional appeal of the movie is intended to help push this type of legislation.

• "Won’t Back Down" romanticizes parent triggers through the story of two moms, portrayed by Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who mobilize parents to fix a struggling neighborhood school.

• These moms buck the system by using a state law (parent trigger) that calls for school board review of community-supported interventions if a majority of parents and school staff petition for the interventions.

• Many reviewers have panned the film. The Hollywood Reporter called it, “…condescending... dumbed-down agenda film… ” (Scroll to the bottom of this page to see more reviews.)


• Still, politicians and elites are blaming teachers for all problems schools and school children face. Teachers are being demonized and shamed by politicians and elites who want to undermine and dismiss their reform efforts. 


• Walden Media’s Anschutz has funded many organizations that operate against the public interest in favor of corporate interests. Walden Media produced "Waiting for Superman."


• Anschutz opposes employees having a voice on the job through a union and collective bargaining, and he spends a lot of money trying to get those rights curtailed.


• Anschutz also has invested millions in anti-gay and anti-environmental organizations, displaying—along with his attacks on public schools—a set of values out-of-step with most audiences of this film. 


• It’s time to support our teachers - not vilify them. Teachers' unions across the country are working with parents, administrators, community and businesses to improve public schools, and that is the story worth telling.

• The last thing the country needs is another attack on employees and their unions. Unions give hardworking employees a voice on the job. And unions help ensure that we can advocate for those who depend on the vital services union members provide.


• America's teachers are devoted to their students and their work. They are already doing more with less—budgets have been slashed, thousands of teachers have been laid off since the start of the recession, class sizes have spiked, and more and more children are falling into poverty.


• Still, politicians and elites are blaming teachers for all problems schools and school children face. Teachers are being demonized and shamed by politicians and elites who want to undermine and dismiss their reform efforts.

• Teachers unions give educators a voice in their work and the ability to work together to advocate for students and their parents.


• “Won’t Back Down” ignores the positive contributions teachers make through their unions to improve the quality of education in schools.

• The Chamber of Commerce and a number of right-wing organizations are sponsoring showings of the movie in cities across the country.

• “Won’t Back Down” masquerades as parent engagement. But instead of focusing on real parent empowerment and how communities can come together to help all children succeed, “Won’t Back Down” offers parents a false choice: you’re either for students or for teachers, you can either live with a low-performing school or take dramatic, disruptive action to shut a school down.


Parent trigger, or parent tricker?

• “Won’t Back Down” doesn’t mention “parent trigger” laws by name, but the film makers clearly support these laws.

• Several states enacted “parent trigger” laws in 2010. In California, the parent trigger law allows 51 percent of parents with children attending a “low performing” school to sign a petition and force actions such as closing the school down completely, replacing the principal, firing 50 percent of the teachers, or converting it into a charter school.

• Montana does not have a parent trigger law. More than 20 states have considered such laws and seven have enacted some version of them: California, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, and Texas.

• Advocates of parent trigger laws claim that the traditional procedures for turning around struggling schools are too slow and too political. They argue that parent trigger affords parents a more active role in how schools are managed.

• Opponents of parent trigger say there are already mechanisms in place to intervene in such a situation: school accountability committees, PTAs and other groups of involved parents, school-community decision making teams or school-based community involvement committees, and local school boards. They say parents may not be aware of the changes schools have already made. Some opponents raise concerns that corporate charter school operators are using the trigger laws to expand their business.

• Funding for many of the “parent trigger” initiatives comes from wealthy philanthropists, policymakers, and think tanks that support charter school expansion.

• Parent trigger laws are key elements in the agendas of two controversial organizations: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Heartland Institute. Both are funded by the ultra-right wing Koch Brothers, well known for their efforts to privatize schools and end public sector unions.

• The California trigger law was based on ideas of Ben Austin of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school company.

• Austin later formed Parent Revolution to promote parent trigger laws across the country, backed by big money from the Walton Family Foundation (think Wal-Mart), which spends millions to promote the privatization of public schools.

• Many parents, educators, and others say parent trigger laws are being misused to promote the growth of charter schools. 

• A January 2011 Los Angeles Times editorial concluded that the “Parent trigger must not become a means for private charter groups to get free school buildings through secret proceedings.”


• Education policy expert Diane Ravitch is a former charter school promoter and education advisor to President George W. Bush. She now speaks against charter schools, and against parent triggers. At the American Federation of Teachers convention in 2012, Ravitch said, “Earlier this spring, Florida parents and teachers joined to defeat the Parent Trigger law. They recognized that the purpose of the Parent Trigger was to trick unsuspecting parents into turning more public schools over to for-profit charter chains. I call it the “parent tricker” law.

• Not a single parent organization in Florida would stand with legislators who were pushing for parent triggers and in the end the proposals were defeated.  Instead, parents united with teachers to fight for proven education reforms.

• Parent trigger laws distract people from the real issue: making public education a priority.  Elected officials need to provide students and teachers with the tools and resources they need to succeed.

• Parents in other communities have tried the parent trigger, and it has misfired.  That’s because there is no silver bullet solution to fixing our schools.  We can’t afford to risk our children’s future—we need to work together to find sustainable solutions that work now and in the future.


Real parent engagement - real reform

• MEA-MFT members and public school teachers nationwide care about their students, and are deeply committed to improving public education for all children. 


• Those of us who spend our days in America’s public schools—not on movie sets—know that we are all accountable for student success. This includes educators, parents, and elected officials.  When we work together, students succeed. 


• Fictionalized accounts that pit parents against school employees may make an interesting story line and haul in the bucks at the box office, but they don’t reflect the on-the-ground reality. 


• Educators and parents are on the same team—we’re all accountable for student success and need to be a united front, putting students at the center of reform. For educators, that means reaching and motivating every student.  For parents, that means instilling values of respect, responsibility and a love of learning.  And for elected officials, it means providing students and teachers with the tools and resources they need to get the job done.


• Instead of false promises like parent triggers, we need sustainable solutions.  It’s time to make smart investments: small classes, early childhood education, up-to-date textbooks and computers, and classes like history, art, PE and music.


• The research is clear: parent and community involvement creates higher academic performance and school improvement. Students with an engaged school community tend to earn higher grades, have better attendance, greater motivation to succeed, and are less likely to drop out of school.

• Our challenge and commitment is to figure out how to share and replicate ideas and programs that work to improve student learning and strengthen communities.

Union-led parent partnership solutions

• "Won't Back Down," like "Waiting for Superman," portrays teachers unions as stopping school improvement efforts. That's not true.


• In fact, MEA-MFT and our national affiliates have led the effort to improve schools for over a hundred years.

• NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign has many success stories of union-led parent/teacher collaboration.  AFT also has success stories.

• In Montana, MEA-MFT and our local affiliates have worked with parents and other to create the Montana Digital Academy http://montanadigitalacademy.org/, Stand Up For Education, and countless other innovative programs.

Denise Juneau, Montana's outstanding Superintendent of Public Instruction and an MEA-MFT member, has made enormous strides in turning around Montana's lowest-performing schools through her Schools of Promise program. She has worked closely with community members, parents, school administrators, and especially the teachers' unions in these communities. MEA-MFT has been a key partner in these efforts.

• We need to invest in and advance programs that we know work, instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We have to make sure all our students, not just some of them, have highly qualified teachers, up-to-date facilities and technology to prepare them for the jobs of the future. 


Useful links: 

From NEA:
• NEA’s Won’t Back Down page
• NEA’s Parental Resources page
• NEA We Believe PSA
• NEA Priority Schools: Union and Parents Join Forces
• NEA Priority Schools:  Family School Partnerships—20 Collaborative Strategies to Advance Student Learning

From AFT:

• Won't Back Down: A Memo from AFT President Randi Weingarten
• Diane Ravitch remarks

• A misleading movie with blatant stereotypes

• Alternatives to parent triggers: meaningful parent empowerment policies

• Won't Back Down: Factchecker

State and local response examples:
• California Teachers Association

• Clark County/Nevada


Blogs on "Won't Back Down": 

• Edutopia: Parent Trigger Laws: Why It's Better to Embrace Collaboration

• PR Watch: "Won't Back Down" Film Pushes ALEC Parent Trigger Proposal

• Tumblr: Won't Back Down: A Fictional Story that Deceives the Public About Our Schools

• Pure Parents: The 3 Big Lies in the Won’t Back Down movie

• NYC Public School Parents Blog: Don't be fooled by "Won't Back Down"! 

• FavStocks: Warn People – "Won’t Back Down" Is A Right Wing Corporate Propaganda Movie

"Won't Back Down": Film reviews 

The Hollywood Reporter:  Won't Back Down - Film Review
"The hot-button issue of public school reform gets unsubtle treatment in this pedestrian and insultingly tendentious drama.... condescending... dumbed-down agenda film… Given the disingenuous way in which this lumbering movie pushes obvious buttons and manipulates the audience’s emotional investment while conveniently skimming the issues, it’s a mystery how some of these names got roped in.”

AP:  'Won't Back Down' fails to make the grade
“Theaters should install glow-in-the-dark versions of those old clunking classroom clocks so viewers can count the agonizing minutes ticking by as they watch the movie.”
NPR: 'Won't Back Down' Takes A Too-Easy Way Out
"...something less honorable...propaganda piece w/ blame on its mind..."

Salon: Won't Back Down: Why do teachers unions hate America? 
“ …the movie is unbelievable crap and the whole project was financed by conservative Christian billionaire Phil Anschutz, also the moneybags behind the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” …“simpering, pseudo-inspirational pap, constructed with painful awkwardness and disconnected from any narrative plausibility or social reality…. script that has that disconnected, amateurish quality distinctive to conservative-oriented entertainment and plays written by fourth-graders…. a set of right-wing anti-union talking points disguised (with very limited success) as a mainstream motion-picture-type product. Someone needs to launch an investigation into what combination of crimes, dares, alcoholic binges and lapses in judgment got Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal into this movie…..,..”


Variety: Won't Back Down

“...disingenuous pot-stirrer...taking public for dummies...cardboard characterizations"
New York Observer: Substitutes Chalk It Up in Won’t Back Down
“This is Norma Rae with chalk and erasers in place of a sewing machine, except for one major difference—this time it’s the unions that stand in the way of progress. With that in mind, it’s little surprise that political conservatives at the press screening I attended booed loudly. [?] For the most part, the direction by Daniel Barnz is clear and substantial, and the screenplay, by the director and Brin Hill, is meticulously researched and stumble-free. As a message picture, its heart is in the right place. Too bad it doesn’t always manage to rise above a swirl of predictable Hollywood clichés.”
Edutopia: Won’t Back Down: An Engaging and Misleading Film
“The bottom line is that, while any filmmaker has the absolute right to present his or her point of view, this emotionally manipulative and dramatically effective film is a piece of propaganda that further polarizes parents and educators, distorts educational issues, and presents simplistic, misguided solutions. It doesn't help solve our educational problems; it magnifies them. “


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