Education Opinion

“Won’t Back Down” Fights the Wrong Battles

By Ilana Garon — October 02, 2012 3 min read

“Won’t Back Down,” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, is the latest in a series of agitprop films (including last year’s notorious “Waiting for Superman,” and another film called “Detachment,” which opens in New York and L.A. next month) that seeks to dramatize the American education crisis for the big-screen. Both “Waiting for Superman” and “Won’t Back Down” suggest that the panacea for America’s failing schools is privately funded charter schools, which--in their freedom from the control of evil teachers’ unions--automatically allow for a higher caliber of classroom instruction for the youngsters. (The connection between getting rid of teachers’ unions and improving instruction is always vaguely delineated; it usually has to do with the erroneous assumption that the union’s sole function is to keep incompetent teachers from being fired, and the equally erroneous misconception that teachers’ unions have any say in curriculum content to begin with.)

So, I actually find the idea for this movie bemusing, in and of itself. “Won’t Back Down” is a drama loosely based on “parent trigger” laws, which allow parents to sign a petition transforming their failing public school into a charter school. And, while this bit of legislation is certainly good fodder for discussion and debate, it makes for a laughably boring movie idea! I can’t understand who goes out to see this movie on a Saturday night; I’d rather stay in and watch re-runs of “Game of Thrones.”

But irrespective of its lack of appeal to my cinematic tastes, “Won’t Back Down” pushes a message that I don’t agree with--namely, that instead of making efforts to improve failing public schools, we should shut them down and change them into charter schools. For too many high-needs schools in New York City, this has been an insidious trend: when a school shows low test scores for several years consecutively--as many do, since the single strongest correlate to standardized test scores is family income--the Board of Education simply shunts more and more kids, including many ESL and Special Needs kids into it, then further penalizes the school for failing to raise scores, and eventually shuts the school down entirely. In its place, small schools and charter schools crop up. (I’ll discuss charter schools in a different post.) Virtually no effort goes into fixing the problems with the existing schools, either by helping teachers meaningfully improve instruction, reducing class-sizes, adding resources, or providing students with opportunities for outside tutoring and enrichment. Instead, the public money is diverted into the charter schools, which at the end of the day--despite also obtaining outside funding from private organizations--do not even take in all the displaced students from the closed-down school.

Moreover, as Liza Featherstone in Dissent Magazine and Nancy Schniedewinde and Julie Woestehoff in Huffington Post point out, charter schools are run by private organizations (the Broad Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) which--despite good intentions--have little accountability to the public, deep pockets, and dubious records of achievement. The effect of the parent trigger laws is to privatize public education; it is by no means a guarantee of improving schools. I’d be interested to know if parents who sign these petitions (in Compton, one is tied up in court right now) are truly aware of parent trigger laws’ effects. As for “Won’t Back Down,” the very idea of a film which lauds a community’s decision to turn a public school over to faceless private control seems too bizarre; it’s as though I were watching the entire movie in re-wind. Definitely not what I’ll be seeing this weekend!

The opinions expressed in View From the Bronx: An Urban Teacher’s Perspective are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Let us know what you think!

We’re looking for feedback on our new site to make sure we continue to provide you the best experience.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools
Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools
Data Analyst
New York, NY, US
New Visions for Public Schools

Read Next

Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of stories from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read