“Won’t Back Down” Captures Heart of Education

Won't Back Down poster“Won’t Back Down” is a movie about education that fittingly begins and ends with a close-up of a child reading aloud. Education debates in America frequently whirl around the ingredients of learning: Teachers and administrators, school buildings and bureaucracies. With Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) sounding out her vowels and consonants, we’re reminded that children are the focal point of education, not anything—or anyone—else.

It’s a point the movie makes over and over as it follows Malia’s determined mother Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and teacher Nona (Viola Davis) battling school officials, teachers unions and a skeptical community to turn around their failing elementary school. In the movie, they use something called the “failsafe law” to take over the school and reverse its course.

In real life, this legal recourse is called the “parent trigger,” and 20 states have considered or enacted some form of the law. The movie itself draws on the true story of a brave mother in Adelanto, Calif. who won enough support from fellow frustrated parents to take over her daughter’s failing Desert Trails Elementary School, though her fight isn’t over. Ironically, “Won’t Back Down” is set in Pittsburgh, though Pennsylvania has no parent trigger law.

As Jamie explains to other parents at a “Parenttrooper” rally, kids have only a short window of time before it’s too late to rescue their education and future. Displaying this sense of urgency, Jamie runs and rarely walks, dashing between teachers, parents and bureaucrats, desperately fighting to save Malia while there’s still time. “I can’t wait for 10,000 studies about how being poor affects education—I can tell you being poor sucks, and my kid can’t read,” she says.

Our CEO and former teacher Matt Brouillette taught at a racially and economically diverse urban Catholic school 20 years ago, and back then he thought “the reform efforts of the 1980s just had to start having an impact…sometime soon. Yet here we are in the second decade of the 21st century and kids are still being told to ‘wait’ for union-led reforms to improve their schools.” 

Poor parents are still waiting. In the film, union power and practices get honest exposure while inspiring viewers about the joy and worth of great teaching—and teachers.

“Won’t Back Down” powerfully reminds us that we can’t wait to change policy on a failing education system. The Pennsylvania legislature is currently considering SB 1115, a charter reform bill that legislators should strengthen with a parent trigger and pass. Go see this inspiring movie, and contact your lawmaker now to tell them Pennsylvania parents won’t back down either.