Vandals in a Steel City School District

If you weren’t sure, let me remind you, Pittsburgh is a 21st century city that still has a rusty, bricked out, working-class soul. I know this because I live here, but also because I finally saw the agit-prop-weepy that is Won’t Back Down, a film about a charter school take-over of a failing school in Pittsburgh’s impoverished Hill District using a special kind of law that we don’t have here in Pennsylvania (yet—and hopefully we never will) called the “parent trigger” law.

In Won’t Back Down, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a working-class single mom of a 3rd grade girl with dyslexia. Jamie works two jobs—at a car dealership by day and at a bar by night. Jamie is earnest, irrepressible, and hot. You see a lot of Jamie’s flat midriff and perky cleavage, even when she is delivering lines that could have been written by Sarah Palin: “You know those mothers who lift one-ton trucks off their babies? They are nothing compared to me.”

The truck that is crushing Jamie’s daughter Malia is a bad teacher at a school that has been failing for 19 years, Adams Elementary. The bad teacher is a stout middle-aged white lady who shops for shoes online and fiddles with her iPhone while Malia is getting roughed up and ridiculed in the classroom. The bad teacher is, of course, a union stalwart and has been “tenurized.”

When Jamie realizes how bad it is at Adams she tries (and fails) to secure one of three slots at the awesome new Rosa Parks charter school. Then she tries (and fails) to negotiate installment payments with a local Catholic school. Then she tries (and fails) to get Malia into a different classroom at Adams, one taught by Viola Davis’s character, Nona Alberts, the self-described “first black Stepford wife” who is going through a wrenching divorce. Nona is almost as checked out as the bad white teacher, but Jamie sees a spark in Nona’s dead eyes and begs her to help her take over the school using the parent trigger law (referred to as a “fail safe” law in the film).

In real life no group of parents has (yet) successfully used this law, but that doesn’t stop Jamie and Nona.  The next thing we know, they are knocking on doors and getting parents to sign petitions.  They get teachers to sign as well, which is tricky, because if the parent trigger law goes into effect, the teachers will forfeit their union membership at the resulting charter school. Jamie’s new boyfriend, who teaches music at her daughter’s school, argues in favor of his union, explaining that teachers need to be protected against low wages and preferential treatment. In another scene, one of the union officials (played by Ned Eisenberg) points out that teachers’ unions are under attack, and that parent trigger laws are aimed straight at organizations like the AFT. He is right, but unfortunately, Won’t Back Down is part of that attack.

The movie shows that pulling the parent trigger is pretty hard. Jamie and Nona have to get 51% of the parents Adams elementary (400+) to sign waiver forms. This takes hours of door knocking in the graffiti slathered tenements of Pittsburgh’s Hill District. It also takes a widely publicized and well-attended rally, which, as one blogger has pointed out, probably cost more than $3,000 to mount. They have to persuade a reluctant school board to hear the case, and, then, they have to get the school board to vote for their scheme.

After the school board vote (SPOILER ALERT) the film has an impossibly happy ending, in which Malia can miraculously read, and the new charter school (though no one ever utters that word) is filled with rainbows, streamers, butterflies, and song.

Won’t Back Down is not your garden variety Hollywood feel-good edu-flick. It was produced by 20th Century Fox in conjunction with Walden Media, which also produced the controversial union-bashing Waiting for Superman and is bankrolled by gajilloinaire Phillip Anschutz. In addition to funding challenges to climate change and evolution science, over the last 10 years Anschutz has donated at least $210,000 to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, dedicated to the eradication of unions. The fact that Won’t Back Down had the least profitable opening ever for a film that opened in 2,500 theaters is, at least, some comfort.

Won’t Back Down is relevant to us those of us in Working-Class Studies because its producers are part of a movement to privatize, corporatize, and monetize public education. I have been watching this movement storm into Pennsylvania over the last few years under the cover of governor Tom Corbett, whose campaign was bankrolled by an entourage of for-profit charter school financiers, and PA’s Republican/ALEC controlled state legislature.

Won’t Back Down doesn’t ask the question that many of us have been raising:  do charter schools improve education? Here in Pennsylvania, Corbett’s administration has been giving charter schools a pass, making it easier for them to meet federal standards, even though a recent Stanford CREDO survey found that “[c]harter schools…in Pennsylvania on average perform worse than traditional public schools…”

So why do charters appeal to poor and working-class parents—especially in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh? As one Philadelphia blogger argues, charters use false advertising to trumpet the benefits of charters schools for inner city children; they “discriminate by playing by their own rules,” such as “counseling out” children with learning difficulties or behavioral problems; and charter school drain money, great students, and highly involved parents from the public schools.

In recent years public schools, public school teachers, and teacher unions have been under constant assault. The rhetoric of failure is rampant, though some argue that it is No Child Left Behind that has failed, and not the schools or the teachers themselves. In a recent poll, for example, three quarters of Americans report being satisfied with their own child’s school, but rate public education in general below 50%.

Are schools failing our children? Or are we failing our schools? In the last two years Corbett has cut more than a billion dollars from the Pennsylvania education budget, forcing hundreds of high performing schools to cut or end art, music, band, and, in the case of my own children’s school, science. Thousands of us in PA have been fighting back. One especially active parent, Susan Spicka, is running for the state legislature, while others have been rallying, pressuring our reps, calling out the governor, and fundraising like crazy in our own schools.

Through these actions, I have been reminded that we already have a kind of parent trigger law. It’s called democracy. Organizing on behalf of public education is as hard as trying to get 400+ parents to sign a parent trigger waiver—and most days, even harder. If you want to see what it looks like in Pittsburgh, check out Yinzercation, an education blog that puts the Pittsburgh fight in the context of the larger state and national issues. Our fight is about protecting public schools and strengthening communities. As Garrison Keiler has argued, “when you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You’re not a conservative, you’re a vandal.”

Won’t Back Down is a rallying cry for the foes of public education—the vandals—and they had better be warned that our public schools are not for sale. I am going to keep fighting for public schools because it is the right thing to do: for my children—and for all of the children for whom public education is still a vital civil right.

Kathy M. Newman

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9 Responses to Vandals in a Steel City School District

  1. Great critique of this movie and others like it. It amazes me when people, even other future educators, believe that charter schools and for profits are the saviors of education.


    • Roy Wilson says:


      While I agree in general with the sentiment you express, I wonder what you make of a (short-lived) Wilkinsburg, PA privatization, which was largely supported by the relatively less well-off African-American parents of students enrolled there. Poor black children have not fared well under traditional public schools: what is the reason they should (in their view) risk sacrificing their children’s future by continuing to rely on traditional schools with a unionized teaching force?


  2. Ben says:

    The funding behind this film describes its purpose: derail public education and substitute market driven alternatives. That said, I taught in many Philadelphia public schools during my 30-year career. In that time I was a member of a reform drive within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Looking back at that history and witnessing today’s relentless attacks on public education, I only wish that the entire teacher’s union movement had paid more attention to building strong ties with the public school community– in most cities a racial minority community.
    There were certainly areas of mutual self interest: city services, crime, student health, supplies, building conditions, etc. Years of forging teacher/community unity were lost by union leaders who ignored parents’ voices or even worse. So here we are today, battling to save our schools from attacks from all around. We could have had more allies for this fight.


    • Kathy M. Newman says:

      Dear Ben: Thank you for your thoughtful reply. Thought I think those of us who support public schools are at a difficult point, and I hope it is not too late for the kind of alliances you are talking about. We are trying to forge them here in Pittsburgh, and it is hard, but I think it is still better than throwing out the public school model all together. I agree with you that we need more allies. Thanks for your years of service, and for the vision and commitment you showed to your students. Kathy


      • bubbamuntzer says:

        What Ben is talking about is exactly what the Chicago Teachers Union did. Their current leadership comes out of a group formed to fight school closures and they’ve given pause to Rahm Emanuel, Arne Duncan, Penny Pritzker and the whole school privatization movement in Chicago and they say the key was broad based community support.


  3. YinzerThing says:

    Thank you, Kathy, for a terrific piece that puts this movie in a working-class perspective. This is an attack on American workers as much as an attack on our public schools.


  4. bubbamuntzer says:

    Roy, that’s like saying if you are against the war you don’t support the troops. It’s two different things. Education quality is one thing and attacks on unions is another thing. They overlap but are two different things. What, if you don’t take a position on abortion that will help solve the abortion issue? Everybody forget about it? Then anti abortion wins by default, and anti union does, too.


  5. Stack says:

    This is the best piece I have read yet on this film and what it means.
    Thank you.


  6. Roy Wilson says:


    With respect to public education (especially charter and/or voucher driven schooling), pro- versus anti-union polarization drives each side to take unrealistic positions.



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