School choice backers screen controversial film "Won't Back Down"
Published: October 12, 2012 12:04PM
Updated: October 12, 2012 12:46PM

For years, Utah school choice proponents have voiced their cause at the Capitol.

On Thursday, they took their message to a markedly different venue: a Salt Lake City movie theater where they hosted a free screening of “Won’t Back Down,” a star-studded movie with a politically controversial point of view.

“We always look for opportunities to inspire and empower parents to be more involved with their schools for the benefit of their students,” said Judi Clark, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education which co-hosted the movie with Parent Revolution, a California-based group sponsoring similar screenings across the country.

It’s a film, however, that’s drawn criticism from some who say it unfairly places blame for problems in education on teachers and their unions, and advocates for an unproven solution.

The movie, loosely based on true events, follows a mother and a teacher at a failing school who fight to wrest control of the school from the district and teacher’s union in hopes of turning it around. In the film, a struggling single mom, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and a disillusioned teacher, played by Viola Davis, inspire others to take on their board of education and a crooked teacher’s union to remake their school.

They do so by taking advantage of their state’s so-called “parent trigger law,” which allows parents and teachers to take over failing schools.

It’s an actual law already passed in about seven states (not including Utah), according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Matthew Ladner, with the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an organization that has supported many of the Florida education reforms enacted under former Gov. Jeb Bush, said in a panel after the movie that the film represented a sort of microcosm of what’s going on in education today.

“Ultimately, what it means is parents need to be in charge,” Ladner said.

Senate Majority Whip Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, who also participated on the panel, said parental options must continue to be strengthened when it comes to education.

Niederhauser said the problems at the school in the movie aren’t exactly like the problems facing Utah schools, but he believes a parent trigger law could work here too, in some cases. He said it’s something that could be worth passing in Utah in the future, once the state’s new school grading and accountability systems are in place.

A few dozen people, invited by Parents for Choice, attended the screening Thursday evening. In large part, they cheered the movie.

Others, however, who didn’t attend the screening, say that parents should be wary of the film and its message. Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said he hadn’t yet seen the film, but it seems “simplistic.”

“Everyone has a stake in this,” Briscoe said. “Teachers have a stake in this, parents have a stake in this. Everyone needs to be working together.”

The film opens with a little girl — the main character’s daughter — struggling to read simple words as her indifferent teacher fiddles with her cell phone. The teacher’s union is portrayed in the movie as willing to lie and bribe in order to maintain the status quo. And a school principal breaks the law in order to protect his own job.

Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association, said Thursday she also hadn’t seen the film but it seems inaccurate to her. Plus, she said parent trigger laws are not an easy fix for struggling schools.

Contrary to the story in the movie, no group in the country has actually yet succeeded in taking over a school through a parent trigger law.

And Gallagher-Fishbaugh said there’s no evidence such laws improve education.

“People are tired of this. They’re tired of the blame game. They’re tried of people trying to find the silver bullet solution,” Gallagher-Fishbaugh said. “We know what works, we need to start collaborating.”

John Yi, with Parent Revolution, which advocates for parent trigger laws, acknowledged that the movie is not all fact but rather a Hollywood interpretation. But he said many parts of it ring true.

Clark said, in the end, it’s about making sure parents have choices.

“When it comes to empowering parents,” Clark said, “we believe parents are best suited to make decision for their kids.”