“Empowerment” Against Democracy: Tinseltown and the Teachers’ Unions

“Empowerment” Against Democracy: Tinseltown and the Teachers’ Unions

“You know those mothers who lift one-ton trucks off their babies?” says Jamie Fitzpatrick, a working-class mom (played Maggie Gyllenhall), in a confrontation with a corrupt union rep in Daniel Barnz’s edu-drama, Won’t Back Down. “They’re nothing compared to me.”

It’s a “you-go-girl” moment. But real moms can’t lift trucks. And just about everything in this movie is as wildly fantastical as that image.

Fed up with her daughter’s horrible public school, Jamie learns about a law that allows parents and teachers to “take over” a failing school. Against the odds, she organizes the powerless and wins over the naysayers. The movie is inspired by real-life “parent trigger” laws, which are pushed by right-wing groups like ALEC, but backed with equal enthusiasm by progressive urban mayors nationwide. The laws allow a charter takeover if 50 percent of the parents agree to it. Charter schools are mostly non-union, and democratically elected officials have little control over them.

Won’t Back Down is liberal Hollywood’s second blast of gas on what was once a bugbear of the Right: the badness of public schools and teachers’ unions, and the magic bullet of hope offered by privatization. The first was Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for Superman. Barnz’s movie, featuring great actresses Viola Davis and Gyllenhall, is far more watchable than Guggenheim’s, but the fantasy world it inhabits is exactly the same. Its release, just on the heels of the Chicago teachers’ strike, feels eerily timely, as its anti-union talking points are just the same as those of Rahm Emanuel and the monied interests of Chicago.

The film’s presentation of the social context is heartbreakingly accurate—poor kids like Jamie’s daughter, Malia, don’t get the education they deserve. But otherwise, the movie presents a Mad Tea Party view of urban education, and of social change itself. In Won’t Back Down, and in the bipartisan neoliberal fairytale that passes for education reform, teachers and parents are good, but the institutions that represent them—unions, the state—are bad. “Empowerment” is desirable, even ecstatic—“Be the change you want to see!” Jamie crows to a throng of cheering parents—but democracy is the enemy. Getting rid of representative government and calling in a private entity to handle things, in our current Opposite Day political moment, represents a glorious triumph of people power. The “parent trigger” invites parents to use their vote to give up their vote—that is, to be enormously powerful for one short moment of direct democracy, which they will use to dispose, in the long run, with the “public” part of public school, and thus with any actual power over their children’s education.

Jamie leads the fictional takeover because her daughter, who is dyslexic, can’t read. Yet not a word is said in the movie about the need for more services and teachers for special needs kids. The school is depicted as depressing and shabby—what about the need for more resources? What about all the extra support poor children need? We see kids acting out and falling asleep in class—where are the social workers to help those kids?

Never mind those wonky details. The problem, we’re repeatedly led to believe, is the teachers’ union. But if unions were to blame for failing schools, wouldn’t unionized public schools in Princeton or Scarsdale also suck?

Hollywood hasn’t been known to let logic get in the way of a good story, and neither do education reformers. Facts are similarly irrelevant. In the movie, Malia’s teacher—a repellent timeserver who locks the little girl in a closet as punishment—can’t be fired because of the union. There are more than a few problems with this scenario. Outside of Tinseltown and the corporate reform imaginary, union members do get fired. In fact, according to data from National Center for Education Statistics, there is no correlation between teacher dismissal rates and union membership. In Massachusetts, where almost all public school teachers belong to a union, the firing rate for experienced teachers is nearly twice that in North Carolina, where just 2.3 percent of the teaching force is unionized.

Despite scapegoating teachers’ unions, Won’t Back Down is not an anti-teacher movie. Most of the teacher characters—especially Nona, played by Viola Davis—are heroic. That’s because one of the film’s messages is that busting teachers’ unions is better for teachers. In one scene, a meeting to discuss the possible takeover, Nona argues that losing the union will be worth it, “because we’ll be able to teach the way we want.” (The movie is vague on Nona’s pedagogy and why the union prevents it. In real life, charter teachers certainly don’t have any more control over curriculum than public school teachers do.) It is a ruling-class wet dream: workers who are happy to help destroy their own institutions. By giving up the organization through which they wield power, the fictional teachers reason, they will gain more power.

We have wandered deep into the swamp of Upsidedownlandia. Yet the same paradox colors the film’s view of parent power. The movie celebrates parents rising up and taking control of their children’s education—in order to rid themselves of all representation. Though the film does not discuss such pesky governance matters, a “takeover,” in real life, usually means that the school is run by a private organization with limited accountability to the public. While the state does decide ultimately which charters to shut down, there is no oversight by the school board, nor the city government, and certainly not the parents.

Of course, democracy and its institutions are horribly flawed. But to conclude that, therefore, dictatorship would be empowering is just weird. It’s not the first time that idea has been presented in film. Daniel Barnz is no Leni Riefenstahl, of course—he’s not as skilled a filmmaker, and there’s nothing racist or hateful in this movie—but the emotional experience of Won’t Back Down is, for the viewer, not unlike that of the best propaganda. As we cheer for Jamie and Nona, we are rooting against ourselves, against our own capacity for self-governance.


Liza Featherstone is a contributing writer to the Nation. She also writes about education for Al Jazeera English and Newsday, as well as the Brooklyn Rail, where she is the author of the “Report Card” column.