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New Movie Replaces Corporate Bad Guy with Bureaucrats

The education policy world is buzzing with a new Hollywood movie out that, for once, celebrates the plight of the underdog as she faces a bureaucratic machine. Movies and TV tend to paint corporations as the big, evil Goliath. Think “The Simpsons,” “Jurassic Park,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “Wall Street,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Thank You for Smoking,” “Supersize Me,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Office Space,” “Blade Runner,” and “WALL-E.” In this case, the big, evil Goliath is government. “Won’t Back Down” is the tale of two moms, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, who want a better education for their kids, but can’t afford private school tuition. Teachers unions, politicians and bureaucrats attempt to thwart them at every turn. So they go big and pull the Parent Trigger, a new kind of law enacted in six states that allows a majority of parents to require one of several allowed reforms by signing and delivering a petition. The reforms include closing the school, converting it into a charter school and replacing most of the staff. WBD opened last weekend to a mediocre box office performance. It’s not surprising a cartoon vampire movie beat it out, but the film only landed in the top ten, and just barely. Perhaps some of that is the fault of teachers unions, who hate the Parent Trigger as much vampires hate garlic and silver bullets. Gyllenhaal, herself a union member and a politically active liberal, faced protests of “Shame, shame, Maggie!” at the movie’s premiere. But she, Davis, and the film’s other stars have been firm in their support for the movie’s core idea: That a government monopoly over education leaves families and children stuck in the dust. “I welcome protests, I welcome discourse … It spearheads change,” Davis said. “We saw that in the 60s. That’s why we enjoy some of the privileges we do today. And you know what, in this movie the teacher, at the end of the day, is the hero. It’s the system that’s broken, and needs to be fixed.” Despite a disappointing first weekend in terms of finance, the movie has already made a significant impact on the discourse surrounding ed policy, which is part of my day job to monitor. Reactionary types are retreating to the “evil outside corporations will ruin our schools” type of arguments, but most reasonable folks don’t believe that. They, like the unionized and far left actresses promoting this film, can look square at America’s education monopoly and see its obvious failures. The open question is how far the film and related discussion might move U.S. education policy towards a more liberated market. That’s definitely the film producers’ goal. Walden Media’s vice president, Chip Flaherty, told a Heritage Foundation audience last week: “For once it’s not William Wilberforce, who is a hero to the movement, but it’s the common person… That’s the best story because it’s a celebration of free will and the importance of each individual, not only to their family, but in the community.”