School choice film draws protests from teachers’ union

Robby Soave | Reporter

In the wake of the Chicago teachers’ strike, a film about parents who fight a teachers’ union for control of a failing school is stirring controversy ahead of its release this Friday.

Won’t Back Down” is inspired by real events, and stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as a parent and teacher who initiate a campaign under Pennsylvania’s parent trigger law to take over and reform their children’s union-run school.

While advocates of school choice are already celebrating the film’s timely message, teachers’ unions protested the world premiere of the film last weekend in New York. They also released a YouTube video titled “Educating Maggie,” aimed at the film’s star, Gyllenhaal.

“It’s clear that Gyllenhaal did very little by way of research into how parents in her own town felt about parent trigger or the movement to privatize public schools,” said the video’s narrator.

One protester in the video likened the school choice movement to a corporate takeover of public schools.

“Corporations that are attempting to take over the public schools, we watched them crash our economy a few years ago, get bailed out, making multimillion dollars all over again, now they set their eyes on our children’s schools,” said the protester.

The video’s creators did not respond to requests for comment.

Malcom Glenn dismissed the union’s criticism that parent trigger laws amount to a corporate takeover of public schools.

“If that’s their claim, it seems like they haven’t seen the movie,” said Glenn, in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The group that is so clearly empowered by education reform is parents. It is parents who are leading the charge to bring forth more options for them and for other parents like them.”

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said “Won’t Back Down” crosses partisan lines to channel the frustrations of parents all over the country.

“You talk to small-l liberals, guys who voted for Clinton, who may have voted for Obama with some sense of hope, they share exactly the same frustration of the parents in this movie,” he said in an interview with TheDC News Foundation.

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools and a major school choice advocate within the Democratic Party, endorsed the film, according to an interview at She also anticipated the backlash from union teachers.

“It did not shock me. It shocked a lot of the people from the movie, the actresses and [director] Daniel Barnz,” she said. “I’ve been in this game for a while. I knew it would cause a lot of controversy.”

“Won’t Back Down” follows in the footsteps of two documentaries released in recent years, “The Lottery” and “Waiting for Superman,” that favorably depict the school choice movement as offering a way out for students trapped in failing schools.

The movie, along with the recent Chicago strikes, opens the door for Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney to challenge President Obama’s opposition to school choice, according to Norquist.

“This movie gives [Romney] a second chance to address the education issue,” said Norquist.

In the film, a union-backed school board eventually approves a proposal for a new school submitted by Gyllenhaal’s character. Norquist said that this part of the movie was “fantasy,” because in real life, union-backed public officials—including Obama—do not vote in favor of school choice.

“We know what happened in real life,” he said. “The seven people the school board had up there were sitting in place of Obama who, when the same question was offered to him when he came to D.C. as president, voted no to school choice for 1,600 kids in DC. Obama voted no.”

Obama attempted to eliminate a DC school voucher program shortly after taking office, and does not plan to fund it beyond 2013.

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