The Three Big Lies in Won't Back Down

Ben Austin, executive director of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit, Parent Revolution, left at podium, applauds parents for th
Ben Austin, executive director of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit, Parent Revolution, left at podium, applauds parents for the first ruling in the nation to uphold a parent-trigger law at Parent Revolution headquarters in Los Angeles, Monday, July 23, 2012. A Superior Court judge has ruled that a Mojave Desert school board illegally rejected a parent petition to turn over an elementary school to a charter. The case is a test of California's so-called "parent trigger" law, which allows parents to force reforms at low performing schools through a petition signed by 50 percent of parents. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

I saw Won't Back Down last week. The crowd loved it, and I might have liked it too, if I hadn't known why it was produced or been aware of the three big lies at the heart of the movie.

After all, it's just a movie, right? And a somewhat hokey but often affecting movie at that. Not being at all connected to reality (despite the big announcement at the very beginning that it was "inspired by actual events") shouldn't matter, right? I mean, did Coma accurately depict the way medicine really works? Could scientists reproduce all the effects in the Star Wars movies? Would a celebrity impersonator like Dave really get away with switching places with a comatose president and making government serve the people again?

Of course not, and no one attacks those movies' accuracy.

The difference here is that the producers of Won't Back Down have publicly acknowledged that the movie was designed to sell parent trigger laws to parent and state legislatures. Our screening in Chicago was introduced by, among others, a staff member from New Schools for Chicago, which pushes charter schools. The "goody bag" we were all promised at the end of the movie turned out to be a WBD totebag with a brochure for New Schools for Chicago in it. Oh, goody.

As propaganda, then, the movie's lies are fair game.

WBD Big Lie #1: Teachers union contracts do not allow teachers to stay after school to give children extra help.

Anyone who has been in a public school for more than 10 minutes knows this is a lie. Teachers are there after school, before school, and during lunch and recess helping students.

But this lie is a critical dramatic device in the movie, mom Maggie Gyllenhaal's first major "aha" moment. When she runs into the classroom in the middle of what passes for a lesson in Terrible Teacher's room, demanding that the teacher stay after school and tutor her child, the teacher says, "School ends at 3:00 p.m." Mom runs out of the room, a furious and defiant look on her face. Later conversations reinforce the lie that teachers are not allowed to stay after school to "give the children what they need."

WBD Big Lie #2: School turnarounds result from parents and teachers voting to "change the school."

The movie shows teachers agonizing over their vote on the"Fail Safe" program, the movie's name for the parent trigger. But the real parent trigger laws do not allow teachers a vote or a voice. One could brush this difference off as mere dramatic license, but the movie depends completely on the alliance between mom Maggie and teacher Viola Davis, who is depicted as an angel of a teacher as well as a deeply loving mother. Yet the premise is a lie.

WBD Big Lie #3: Great schools are easy.

This was honestly the most idiotic part of the movie. Not that it's easy to portray something complicated in movie language. But really. Mom Maggie goes to the district office. She has coffee with the receptionist who tells her about the "Fail Safe" law. Maggie's takeaway? All you need to turn a school around is to "get one teacher, and stick it out."

Later we see mom-with-two-part-time-jobs-and-dyslexia personally writing a 400-page proposal for the new school, which includes fun "ideas" from various teachers like "field trips" and "Shakespeare." Hero teacher Viola contributes the idea that the curriculum should be "integrated."

Yes, it's a movie. Coma, Star Wars, and Dave didn't have to prove that they were valid in the real world.

But when people use a movie to disrupt and potentially damage the real lives of real children and real adults, they do have to be held accountable to the rest of us.

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