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Won't Back Down: A Charter School Parable

The Buffalo News’ daily events feature, “Seven by Seven,” had it right in its listing for Won’t Back Down, the movie that had a special free showing Monday at the Regal Elmwood Center Cinema. The movie, the News noted, “has generally gotten failing marks from the reviewers. Critics are calling it ‘dreary,’ ‘boring’ and ‘manipulative.’” And so they are. David Germain’s AP review, picked up by the News last Friday, was typical enough. “A simple-minded assault on the ills of public schools that lumbers along like a math class droning multiplication tables,” he wrote.

He’s not critically far off the mark, but he and a number of other reviewers may well be missing a more important point: Won’t Back Down may be a potent propaganda and recruiting tool for a movement that aims to substantially alter and restrict public education in this country. The movie may be having a different effect on audiences of parents and others troubled and frustrated by the poor record of both students and public schools in urban America. It may be having a persuasive impact, despite its often turgid, sentimental story line and almost blunt-force political agenda.

Brian Trzeciak, a local community organizer and education specialist, who was at the Regal and intensely disliked the picture, admitted afterward that “The crowd seemed impressed” by it. That mixed-race, age-diverse audience of over 200 people was there at an event organized by Buffalo ReformEd, a nonprofit with a history of advancing the interests of charter schools. The evening, which included a brief panel discussion after the movie, was part of a national campaign lead by Parent Revolution, a California organization devoted to charter school formation and a force behind that state’s “parent trigger” law, under which a bare majority of a public school’s parents can opt for closing the school and converting it into a charter institution.

Just such an effort forms the thrust of the movie’s plot line. In it, Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a harried single mother of a learning disabled third-grader, is persistently rebuffed by school authorities when she seeks help for the girl. At wit’s end after failing to secure a place for her daughter at a superior charter school, she has a chance encounter with a school board receptionist and learns of the state’s trigger provision. Jamie is a virtual high-powered engine of determination, and she’s able to enlist a disillusioned teacher at her daughter’s school, Nona (Viola Davis), a woman, coincidentally enough, with a boy who’s bullied or ignored in school because he’s deemed slow (this school system doesn’t seem to have heard of special ed), and who also failed in a bid for the charter school. They set out to take over their school.

The picture’s smoothly machined, close-fitting parts are obvious even before we’re given the revelation of Nona’s failing marriage and the tragically poignant back story of her son’s problems.

Won’t Back Down co-writer and director Daniel Barnz scarcely bothers to disguise the shameless soap-opera tenor of his movie, but it’s prime evidence of the impact slick professionalism can achieve in popular entertainment. (In his play Private Lives, Noel Coward remarked on the allure of “cheap” popular music.) Particularly when, as here, the artists smoothly and melodramatically advance an ostensibly righteous cause, one that seems to be advocating the rescue of socially endangered children.

Neither the acting nor the direction is negligible here. Davis, Gyllenhaal, and Holly Hunter, as an increasingly conflicted teachers union official, are impressive troopers. Hunter’s character is intended to lend a note of moral gravitas to the movie, as she struggles to reconcile her union loyalties with her growing sympathy for the parents’ cause. For the teachers union is the major obstacle to the “reforms” the beleaguered, ignored parents are trying to effect.

April Popescu, regional advocacy director at Parent Revolution, acted as moderator at Monday’s event. She later told Artvoice, “At the end of the day it’s a story,” one “not making a real point.” The message she hoped it left, she said, is one that “energizes parents to get involved in the movement” to improve American education, “to look for help for our problems,” a movement she hoped unions would join.

Except that in the movie’s hellish concentric circles, unions seem to be near the center. The bulk of the faculty at Nona’s school seems to be worn-out and whipped, when they’re not self-serving and uninterested in the students. Trzeciak finds this ironic. “I thought about the [recently] striking teachers in Chicago,” he said, and their attempt to get better conditions and materials in their schools, not just to protect their jobs.

There is a political history behind this movie’s stance. It was financed by Walden Media, whose founder is Philip Anschutz, a funder of rightist and Christian programs and causes. He has supported right wing candidates, anti-gay organizations, and school-privatization campaigns. Anschutz bankrolled a documentary movie, Waiting for Superman, that ReformEd exhibited a couple of years ago, and that also made unions out to be the most important obstacle to school improvement. It held up Finland’s superior educational system as a model, neglecting to mention the system’s strong teachers union protections.

During the short post-movie remarks, Buffalo District Parent Coordinating Council vice-president Bryon McIntire—his group cooperated with the sponsors—told the audience, “You have to make a moral choice to do what’s best for our children.” There was little room for confusion about the implied choice between public and charter schools, between teachers unions, and, in the movie’s terms, a liberated corps of teachers.

Trzeciak sees another serious misinterpretation and irony at work in all this. If any parents were to succeed at closing a public school—as provided for in legislation proposed by Buffalo-area state Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples—these parents would be unlikely to end up running their school. A private corporate entity would likely take over, he says, marginalizing most parents. “It’s been done before,” he said. “Outside interests come in and hire staff…The privatization of education is what the right wants.”

Won’t Back Down has been running in one of the Regal’s theaters this week for the general paying public. A source in the regional Regal operation told Artvoice that Anschutz is an important investor in the Regal organization.

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