"Won’t Back Down," the new Hollywood film about two mothers determined to take over their children's failing inner city school, represents everything that’s wrong with the present way we talk about school reform – and everything we need to talk about more in the future.
The film itself feels like Soviet-era propaganda. No characters are well-developed; they’re all two-dimensional mouthpieces for different constituency groups’ pet programs and policy proposals. Even when the filmmakers try to instill a bit of complexity – such as the Teach for America alum who works in a neighborhood school and was raised in a family with deep union ties – the strings of the puppeteer are too easily visible for anyone interested in the story more than the sound bite.
It’s a lousy movie, plain and simple.
"Won’t Back Down" is also lousy at orienting viewers to the complexity of our current efforts to improve public education. School choice is presented as a panacea in and of itself, and the process of turning a struggling school into a successful one seems to involve little more than a few all-nighters, some dogged persistence and an unwavering belief in the rightness of one’s cause. If viewers took this film at its word, they might think that all we’d need to do to transform public education is scream “Power to the People” and presto! No more failing schools.
Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. And yet, even though the film’s treatment of school reform is misleadingly simplistic, it would be equally misleading to dismiss it altogether. In fact, the core issues it raises – the importance of parental engagement, the injustice of American education and the illogic of a sclerotic system of schools that has outgrown its Industrial-era mission – are exactly the sorts of issues we need to explore more deeply as a nation.
That is the paradox of "Won’t Back Down." It’s wrong to suggest that school choice is all we need, and it’s right to highlight the unique power that comes from creating public school communities in which everyone – teachers, families and children – gets to decide whether they want in. It’s wrong to suggest that parent trigger laws provide straightforward paths for school improvement, and it’s right to call out the institutionalized racism of having one’s ZIP code be one’s destiny.
And while it’s reckless to suggest that fulfilling America’s historic commitment to freedom requires little more than giving everybody freedom of choice, the right to do what one wants, it’s essential to remind each other that what really makes us American is our freedom of conscience, the right to do what one must.
"Won’t Back Down" won’t help anyone figure out how to improve our nation’s schools. It also won’t make for a great night at the movies. But maybe it can help some of us wake up to a core inequity we have tolerated for far too long. And maybe, if it does, that alone will be worth the price of admission.