Debate Over Won’t Back Down Shines Light on City’s Brewing Education Battle


Considering that Won’t Back Down is reportedly the lowest grossing opening film in Box Office history, it sure has garnered a lot of attention both nationally and here in New York.

The attention the movie’s received in New York sheds light on the city’s educational landscape — where there’s an intense battle brewing between those fighting to keep public schools public, and those fighting to make way for privately-operated charter schools.

Won’t Back Down tells the story of how two frustrated mothers of public school students and how one of their teachers uses the parent-trigger law to takeover an inept public school.

“It’s a policy idea that’s relatively recent and intended to give parents who are dissatisfied with a school the option to initiate, on their own, a formal reconstitution of the school, whether it’s to bring in a charter or a management organization, or whatever,” Jeffrey Henig, chairman of the department of education policy & social analysis at Columbia University, tells the Voice.

Many Critics of the film’s message call it propaganda financed by corporate entities looking to lay claim to a larger stake in public education funding.

“I do know [the film] comes out of Walden Media, and I do know they’re a very conservative Hollywood production company,” Nancy Schniedewind, a professor of educational studies at SUNY New Paltz who has been outspoken against the education privatization movement, tells the Voice. “Also, it’s being pushed very much by what I would call corporate reformers, and those are people who have lots of money but no accountability to the public and are pushing for [privatization] solutions to issues we face in public education.”

New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, a coalition comprised of numerous city organizations and teachers unions, believes the city is under siege from such attacks. It was launched in opposition to the formation of StudentsFirstNY, the local subsidiary of the national StudentsFirst organization, which is headed by well-known champion of school privatization Michelle Rhee.

SFNY has voiced its support for Won’t Back Down in recent weeks, and even posted updates on Twitter using “#Won’tBackDown” hash-tags as a show of defiance to critics.

The organization identifies itself as a community-led grassroots group eager to fix the broken public school system. Opponents identify it as a corporate-sponsored organization bent on expediting the privatization of city public schools.

“Groups that have supported these kinds of changes, initially pursued them through research and lobbying at an elite level. I think they came to realize, roughly five, six years ago that a lot of their efforts were being stymied because they didn’t have a real claim to a grassroots base, a local political base,” Henig says.

“With support of some of the major foundations they’ve began funding an array of advocacy groups that either do represent parents in the community, or claim to represent the parents and community voice,” he says.

The battle between groups like NYGPS and groups like SFNY is critical to the future of education in the city — especially with the 2013 mayoral election on the horizon. The current education system, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg instituted while in office, gives the mayor virtual unfettered control of education policy in the city.

“In New York City, and other cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, the fact that the mayor has so much power and is not responsive to a democratically elected school board is very problematic. It’s not in our American tradition,” Schniedewind says. “Once the mayor does have control, he can do a lot without real public consultation. So, the proliferation of charter schools is one of those policies that is moving swiftly along, and you can look at the school board meeting.”

Under the current system, Bloomberg’s policy-making powers are checked only by the Panel for Educational Policy. The PEP has 13 members, 8 of whom the mayor appoints himself, and five of whom are appointed by the borough presidents. The mayor can remove and replace his appointees at any time, and he all ways maintains a majority rule.

Over 30 elected city officials have pledged their intent not to accept money from SFNY, which supports mayor Bloomberg, because of its apparent ties to corporate entities looking to privatize education. City Council Speaker and current mayoral election favorite Christine Quinn welcomes money from both SFNY and teacher unions — saying she’s open to any policies that will help bolster education.

Won’t back down is produced by Walden Media, the same company which produced the pro-charter school film Waiting for Superman . The parent-trigger law used in the film, is based on model legislation produced by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has been known to champion and craft policies which promote privatization.

“The laws are pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which pushes a wide variety of conservative sorts of measures and collaborations with corporations,” Schniedewind says. “Their efforts have been brought to light recently, but they certainly have been behind many, many anti-public legislative agendas.”

Despite her criticisms of education privatization, Schniedewind acknowledges the need for vast improvement within the public school system.

“It’s not to say our schools don’t need improving. It’s not to say we don’t have many serious problems, but there are other ways to go about solving those problems that are a part of the American tradition,” she says. “Based on the notion that schools are a part of our democracy, the people who run schools should be accountable to parents and to local communities, and not to corporate entities.”

For the people who have seen the film or will see the film, Henig isn’t too worried that they’ve been swayed by it.

“I think the evidence is still out on how much impact either Waiting for Superman or this movie really will have on people,” he says. “There’s been substantial discussion around it, and I suspect that most of the audience that even goes to see it…are not going to go in naively thinking they’re going into see a Schwarzenegger movie, so they’ll be cued in a little bit to the context.”