Wont Back Down, which opens Friday, is getting panned by many critics. But it has succeeded at sparking debate over school reform, in Charlotte and across the country.
The movie tells the fictional story of two mothers, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, battling to take over a Pittsburgh elementary school that is failing their children. It previewed at the political conventions in Charlotte and Tampa, setting the stage for the political firestorm that has been raging ever since.
To some, its an inspiring saga of parental engagement and refusal to tolerate a status quo that puts adult comfort over childrens success.
What we think is important is that the parents became involved and asked questions and demanded change, said Eddie Goodall of Waxhaw, a former state senator who heads the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association. The parents said, Weve had enough.
To others, its propaganda for a movement that wants to destroy teacher unions and promote private takeover of public education.
Pamela Grundy, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parent who drew national attention for her protest at the Democratic National Convention screening, says the movie promotes the view that what we need to do to have a great life is to throw off the chains of government and unions. It was very anti-public schools.
Blog posts and media statements have been flying for weeks. Three groups promoting a reform platform that emphasizes parent choice StudentsFirst, Democrats for Education Reform and Parent Revolution sponsored the DNC screening and a panel discussion afterward. Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools and founder of StudentsFirst, was one of the Charlotte speakers.
Grundy and Carol Sawyer, both leaders of the local education advocacy group Mecklenburg ACTS, showed up with protest signs and oversized foam pencils, hoping to attend. They were turned away. Grundy, who is also a co-founder of the national Parents Across America, blogged about the experience and got coverage across the country.
Students First wasnt just showing the movie to inspire people. It was aggressively turning this feel-good fantasy to political ends, to advocate for parent trigger legislation and charter expansion across the country strategies that in our minds do more harm than good, Grundy wrote.
The parent-trigger idea may be unfamiliar to many in the Carolinas.
California pioneered the concept of authorizing parents to force major changes in low-performing public schools, including converting them to charter schools. Groups backing the concept say half a dozen states have similar laws, while more are discussing them.
Sawyer, a Democrat, says rumors are afloat that North Carolinas Republican-dominated legislature will take up something similar a push she and other critics say is promoted by for-profit charter companies.
Jordan Shaw, a spokesman for House speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, says hes not aware of any such plans.
As you know, we have taken steps on education reform, and well continue to promote parent involvement and parental choice in education, Shaw said in response to an Observer query. But Im not aware of any specific movement toward parent trigger laws at this point.
Goodall says that while his group promotes charters a type of public school that doesnt report to local school boards it hasnt discussed parent trigger laws. He says the movies value will come from getting parents talking about school choice, not from promoting a specific type of law.
Villains and heroes
Most who have seen Wont Back Down, whether they like it or not, agree it paints with a broad brush. It is, after all, a Hollywood movie, although it is produced by Walden Media, the studio behind the 2010 education documentary Waiting for Superman.
Administrators and teacher unions are painted as uncaring villains. The only thing the district does right is protect what it does wrong, one teacher says early in the film. The union is depicted as more concerned about protecting burnouts, including one who torments a child to retaliate for her mothers activism, than educating children.
The path to success is also sketched in broad strokes: Freedom from union restrictions and deadwood teachers, allowing the good ones who remain to spend longer days and do more creative work with their students. Davis character, a teacher, transforms a class full of sleepers and slackers into academic dynamos by resolving to try harder.
Bill Anderson, executive director of MeckEd, says the quality of the movie should keep anyone from taking it seriously as a policy manifesto. MeckEd is a nonpartisan education and advocacy group focused on CMS.
Anybody that took that film really seriously doesnt know the difference between entertainment and reality, Anderson said.
It was really a pretty lousy movie, he added a view that has been echoed, often in much stronger terms, by several critics.
Groups such as Goodalls charter organization and Charlotte Mocha Moms, a support group for stay-home mothers of color, are holding special viewings, using the movie as a platform to spark discussion. Students from Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy and Lincoln Charter acted as ushers for the DNC screening.
Suzie Rape and Ruth Singleton went to a general pre-screening on Monday. Rape, whose two children have attended public and private schools, emerged fired up.
I hope that CMS looks at this and it wakes some of them up, she said. She launched into a list of concerns, from the disruption caused by busing when she was in high school to her struggle to get challenging courses for a gifted child.
Singleton countered that her grandchildren go to Collinswood Language Academy, a CMS magnet that she describes as a model of the kind of diverse, successful school the movie moms were trying to create.
Rape was skeptical: If CMS had the answers, why do we still have failing schools?
The two friends agreed good principals are the key, and Rape began to list several great ones her kids have encountered in CMS.
Her conclusion was one that would likely unite the movies fans and critics.
No matter where you live, no matter what your income, Rape said, these kids should go to good schools and everybody should have the same opportunity.