Political Animal


February 16, 2013 2:48 PM “Won’t Back Down” revived as centerpiece of corporate lobbying campaign

By Samuel Knight

By most accounts, “Won’t Back Down” is a film that everyone would like to forget.

The cringe-inducing anti-teachers’ unions movie may have had the backing of wealthy corporate education reformers, but the magnates couldn’t seem to use their entrepreneurial spirit to cobble together a decent flick. The astroturfers dream, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, completely flopped at the box office when it was released last fall. In fact, if movie-goers’ taste is the sole metric, “Won’t Back Down” was the worst major film in the history of cinema. The Huffington Post reported that the $2.6 million it took in on its debut weekend set “the record for worst opening of a film that released in over 2,500 theaters.”

If the billionaire backers of this film — Philip Anschutz, through Walden Media, and Rupert Murdoch through 20th Century Fox — held their production to the same standards that they want to impose on public schools, every last copy of “Won’t Back Down” would be sealed in a series of wet cement laden oil drums and eventually heaved into Lake Superior. Yet they won’t let it die. They just (sorry) won’t back down. According to the AP, they’ve stripped the movie of its flimsy pseudo-artistic pretensions, and have placed it at the center a new lobbying effort:

[T]he film’s creators, and a cadre of influential admirers, have more than ticket sales in mind. They hope the classroom drama about two single moms in Pittsburgh trying to save their kids’ failing inner-city school also sparks a wave of activism while igniting widespread legal changes to give parents more control over how their children learn.
“Won’t Back Down” is the centerpiece of a national six-month, U.S. Chamber of Commerce tour of major cities and state capitals, including Albany, N.Y, Indianapolis, Phoenix and San Diego. Business leaders and education reform groups want to leverage the film’s message into broader policy changes modeled on California’s 2010 “parent trigger” law, which allows a simple majority of petition-signing parents to fire principals, boot out poor teachers, take over failing schools and convert them to public charter schools often operated as private businesses.

But like it’s initial release, the resurrection of “Won’t Back Down” as a shameless lobbying tool instead of a subliminal one isn’t exactly proving to be a smashing success thus far:

The private screenings allow the business group’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce and lobbyists from organizations such as StudentsFirst, the education reform group created by former Washington, D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee, to woo state lawmakers over beer and finger sandwiches, as was the case recently in Jefferson City
Only a handful of Missouri lawmakers watched the movie, and not many more showed up at an education panel discussion the next morning at a Jefferson City art gallery.

Still, it’s not hard to see why all parties involved are keen on risking total embarrassment (again) by frog-marching this cinematic war crime across America:

“[O]n Thursday, one week later, [Missouri] Speaker of the House Tim Jones filed a parent trigger bill that would allow parents at schools ranking in the bottom 20 percent on state standardized tests to petition for charter status, or gain authority to fire teachers and principals. Jones filed a similar bill last year that didn’t advance out of committee.”

But if this initiative does achieve anything, it’s doubtful that the charter schools “parent triggers” aim to create would benefit anyone other than the companies that run them, and the barons determined to bust teachers unions.

According to PRWatch and Christopher Lubienski, Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Organization at the University of Illinois:

The data shows that the conversion to charter schools, which Lubienski said is the constant theme running throughout the “Parent Trigger” legislation passed in states, has not shown to be effective in improving student outcomes. A study conducted at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution presents evidence that students in only 17 percent of charter school show greater improvement in math and reading than students in similar traditional public schools, whereas 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than the student would have realized had they remained in public schools. However, the conversion to charter schools has proven profitable to many U.S. firms such as ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] member National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter school management organization operating in eight states, and K-12, Inc., which promotes “virtual” charter schools as well as “virtual” voucher schools. K-12, Inc. is under investigation in Florida for improperly certifying teachers and asking them to cover it up.
Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.


  • c u n d gulag on February 16, 2013 4:49 PM:

    "Privatization," is the greatest scheme EVER by Conservatives!

    It's the best way to move peoples public tax money into the private pockets of corporations and their political lackey's.

    The latter, who end up with either money for future campaigns for 'privatizing' what were once governmental public function, or a soft place to land once they either get voted out, or tired of glad-handing the voters - aka: the suckers, rubes, marks, stooges, fools, idiots, and moron's, they need to vote for them, in order for them to stay in power.

    And if you ever see someone like Michelle Rhee anywhere in your vicinity, I'd recommend that you keep a tight grip on your wallet or purse, lest she try to privatize what's in them, too!!!

  • Strategicdata456 on February 16, 2013 5:48 PM:

    Initiative it was going Good Luckily.

  • beb on February 16, 2013 6:05 PM:

    That "parent Trigger" thing ought to be a 2-way street. With parents of students in charter schools able to require them to be re-absorbed into the public school system and the managers fired.

  • Rich2506 on February 16, 2013 6:11 PM:

    I notice that Holly Hunter, who was listed as fourth in the credits by IMDB, was smart enough to see to it that she didn't appear in the preview, nor in any of the photos for the movie. "Yeah, I'll take the paycheck, but I don't want the stink of this turkey on my public image."

  • Doug on February 16, 2013 6:12 PM:

    Gee, and here I thought there already WAS a "parent trigger" - school board elections! Silly me...

  • karl in Minnesota on February 16, 2013 7:08 PM:

    Let us acknowledge that education cannot be done better for profit, in part because the standard of excellence is set by non-profit charitable entities and not for profit governments. The model that they set, without a margin for equity return, sets the market and means for profit entities will fail. The next place that we will see the market work this way is health care. Doubters should look at the strongest and best health care organizations such as Mayo or Johns Hopkins.

  • Anonymous on February 16, 2013 8:22 PM:

    "But like itís initial release,..."

    I'm sorry, but I expect basic fourth grade level literacy from the left.

  • rrk1 on February 17, 2013 5:35 PM:

    The whole charter school disaster was always an anti-union attack dressed up as school choice. Just as the financial problems of the postal service is another, and the constant attacks and underfunding of AMTRAK are a third attempt to break unions.

    The money spent on public education is too rich a lode of cash not to be mined by the usual greed heads with ties to the Rethugs. Charter schools are merely a way of funneling tax money into the pockets of the well-connected usual suspects, and by-the-by undermining the public school system.

    My own experience with a local charter school is not encouraging. While it provides an option to the public school systems in the area, all of which are really quite good, the facilities the charter school has and the competence of the students they turn out is in both cases sorely lacking. I am far from impressed, and resent the degradation of public school programs resulting from the reduced financing they receive. By diverting money to charter schools on the one hand, and on the other the collosal list of unfunded mandates for special education in my state, we are really shortchanging many of our mainstream children; and also relying far too heavily on property taxes to pay for it all.