I Won't Back Down from Civil Rights... or from Teachers' Unions

By Nancy French

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When I dropped my daughter off at an inner city Philadelphia School for kindergarten, I tried to keep my emotions in check. It was the first time in five years I'd been separated from my daughter, but I didn't want to cry in front of the other latte-sipping parents. After all, the school looked welcoming enough, and the teachers were kind. But I really got a lump in my throat when they divided up the kids by class, and I counted the little heads in my daughter's first kindergarten class.


There's nothing quite like the feeling of helplessness a mom feels when sending a child into a less than ideal situation. But mothers all across the nation feel that trepidation every single day, because American public schools are failing in almost every measurable way. This was dramatically demonstrated when Chicago teachers -- who make on average $74,839 per year -- demanded more pay, refused to lengthen their already short school day, and didn't want evaluations tied to performance. And this when 80 percent of Chicago eighth graders don't meet reading or math grade level requirement and 40 percent drop out before graduating.

Some parents have given up on public school for the greener (and more expensive) grass of private schools. Others have opted for homeschooling. But a new movie called "Won't Back Down," explores what parents and teachers at public schools can do to help change the public schools from within. The film, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, definitely makes moviegoers feel –- in the gut –- what we know in our heads: far too many schools aren't teaching subjects, delivering reasonable results, or prioritizing students.

The movie was screened for audiences at the Republican and Democratic national conventions. In spite of its bi-partisan rollout, however, it's already been called the most controversial movie of the year. In fact, the president of the American Federation of Teachers has condemned the movie as "divisive" and saying it "resorts to falsehoods and anti-union stereotypes," protestors have picketed outside screening locations, and the President himself was warily warned of the screening at the DNC.

Why all the fuss?

First of all the movie popularizes the relatively unknown "parent trigger laws." Gyllenhaal portrays a struggling Pittsburgh mom Jamie Fitzpatrick whose dyslexic child receives no basic instruction at school. Together, she and Davis's character, a veteran teacher, try to take over their failing public school by using a relatively unknown law, which allows parents and teachers of failing schools to change it.

Only four states have these laws -- California, Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana -- and the details vary from state to state. However, they generally allow for the removal of ineffective teachers, ousting of a terrible principal, and even converting the school into a charter school. Though this has never successfully been done, undoubtedly this movie will cause many concerned parents to bring these initiatives to the attention of their state lawmakers. Originally proposed by a former Clinton White House strategist, these "parent triggers" are now about as popular with teachers' unions as a head lice epidemic.

In fact, the second reason for the controversy is that the main antagonists are teachers' unions, who repeatedly attack, block, and malign the efforts of hard working parents and teachers. (I experienced some cognitive dissonance while watching the movie. Have unions -- who've given well over $35 million exclusively to Democratic candidates since 1989 -- ever been negatively portrayed in major motion movies?)

Some liberals activists have said this movie is merely a piece of right wing propaganda, but not so fast. The movie's director, Daniel Barnz, is a self-described "liberal Democrat" and told the Huffington Post, "I think that people are a bit tired of the finger-pointing and scapegoating within this world. I think they just want to see a way in which our schools can improve. That's the spirit of the film." He also told the L.A. Times, "I think of this movie as a David and Goliath story and for me, it's a multifaceted Goliath made up of many things that are represented in the film: parental apathy, an incompetent principal, a dispassionate teacher. Part of it is the teachers union."

In other words, sometimes well-meaning, Democratic-voting teachers' unions actually enable and protect the failing schools. Barnz says he supports -- yet is also critical of -- the unions. And he isn't alone. Former teacher and current Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- who's the head of the Democratic National Convention -- favors holding teachers accountable, having more school choice, and was part of a panel which discussed the movie at the DNC.

The support from both sides of the aisle shows this movie isn't about politics -- or it shouldn't be no matter how much the unions complain. Rather, it's about basic human rights and decency. Mitt Romney claimed this as "the civil rights issue of our time," no doubt because of the inordinate number of African American children affected by urban schools' failure rates.

Of course, not all urban public schools fail. McCall Elementary in Center City Philadelphia, where my daughter was squeezed into a kindergarten class of 40, actually listened to the parents' pleas. Within one month, they'd added another class and it turned out to be one of my daughter's best school years. It just took a little parental involvement, a school which held itself accountable to certain standards, and the willingness to honestly address problems. In other words, my daughter was fortunate enough to attend a school built around educating children, not protecting even the worst teachers' jobs and benefits.

There's a poignant scene in "Won't Back Down" when Gyllenhaal's character asks an uncaring principal, "Have you heard about those mothers who lift one-ton trucks off their babies? They're nothing compared to me."

It's time for the mothers of America to get angry about the state of public schools, because the lifetime weight of a bad education can feel a lot heavier than one ton.

Read more blog posts from Nancy French

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