"Parent power" film stirs hopes of education reform activists

Fri Sep 28, 2012 6:38pm EDT
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By Stephanie Simon

(Reuters) - Education reform film "Won't Back Down" opened Friday to terrible reviews - and high hopes from activists who expect the movie to inspire parents everywhere to demand big changes in public schools.

The drama stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a spirited mother who teams up with a passionate teacher to seize control of their failing neighborhood school, over the opposition of a self-serving teachers union.

Reviewers called it trite and dull, but education reformers on both the left and right have hailed the film as a potential game-changer that could aid their fight to weaken teachers' unions and inject more competition into public education.

Private foundations, nonprofit advocacy groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have pumped more than $2 million into advocacy efforts tied to "Won't Back Down," including 30-second ads, promotional bookmarks, websites, private screenings and a six-month, cross-country discussion tour that will keep the film in circulation long after it leaves theaters.

Their goal: To attract new foot soldiers who will help them fight for legislation that allows parents to seize control of local schools, as dramatized in the film; eliminates tenure protections for veteran teachers; and opens the door for more competition to neighborhood schools in the form of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run.

"This movie has the potential to be one of the most transformative vehicles in the history of education reform," said Ben Austin, a longtime Democratic activist.

Austin now runs Parent Revolution, which promotes "parent trigger" laws allowing parents unhappy with struggling schools to take control, fire teachers and bring in private management.

His organization is holding 35 private screenings of "Won't Back Down" in states from Georgia to Utah to New York over the next month to rally more parents to the cause. "This movie is telling a story that's relevant to hundreds of thousands of parents across America," Austin said.   Continued...