If not for a new star-studded movie, the election may have come and gone with almost no mention of the issue that matters most: education reform. This film image released by 20th Century Fox shows Maggie Gyllenhaal, right, and Viola Davis in a scene from "Won't Back Down." (AP Photo)
In the biting – and often disturbing – 1999 political satire film “Election,” Tracy Flick, played brilliantly by Reese Witherspoon, laments the superficial nature of high school politics during her scorched earth run for class president when she says, “You see, I believe in the voters. They understand that elections aren’t just popularity contests.”
While the Machiavellian Flick turns out to be the epitome of the “win-at-all-costs” approach to modern politics, her words on how voters view elections ring true.
People I speak with across the nation care about the issues and want them discussed more on the campaign trail. This is especially true for parents, who believe that there should be a stronger focus on education policy in local, state and federal elections.
While education has essentially been a no-show in this year’s national political debate, a new star-studded feature film may finally force the education debate into the political forefront – and not everyone is happy about it.
Oscar nominees Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal star in “Won’t Back Down,” which was screened at both the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions and opens nationwide this week.
It tells the semi-true story of two mothers who decide to take action to turnaround their children’s failing inner-city school.
The public policy at the heart of the movie is the so-called “Parent Trigger Law,” which empowers public-school parents to transform a traditional school into a charter school through a signature petition process. These laws typically also allow parents to make school personnel decisions, including firing underperforming teachers.
California was the first state to adopt a parent trigger law and four other states have followed suit. Many other states are expected to consider similar moves over the next year.
Parent trigger laws are decidedly blunt instruments and teachers’ unions strongly oppose them. The film has already drawn the ire of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who said it creates a “misleading depiction of teachers and unions.”
To her point, it is important to remember that stereotypes of teachers – as disinterested, unambitious and uncaring – are usually wrong. Most teachers, including those in schools like the Pittsburgh elementary school portrayed in the film, are dedicated, caring professionals who do their jobs under difficult circumstances.
Dramatized portrayals aside, what drives most education reformers is certainly not a lack of respect for teachers — but rather a fervent belief that that protecting bad teachers undermines the many good ones so vitally important to quality education. Just as good teachers can turn students’ lives around and open doors; bad teachers can have a lasting negative impact.
A recent study from researchers at Harvard and Columbia universities quantified the impact teachers can have on pulling urban students out of poverty. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently cited the study’s findings that if a classroom of students swapped a poor teacher (bottom five percent) with an average teacher, those students would realize an aggregate $1.4 million in extra income over their careers. Teachers matter. Big time. That’s why I support the parent trigger.
Educational innovations — whether it’s virtual learning, charter schools, turnaround strategies or school choice — are not intended to harm teachers. They are intended to be fix broken systems and help students, particularly those in low-income districts. In fact, in many cases these measures can help teachers, who are often victims of the system just like students and parents.
With our children and their teachers settling in to a routine at school, let’s hope that more parents – perhaps spurred on by “Won’t Back Down” – will force the education issue center stage in the finals days of our political season. The absence of debate on education – with its critical role in improving our long term economic health as well as creating upward mobility – is a missed opportunity by both major parties.
The upcoming debates are a chance to learn more about both candidates and I’m hoping “Won’t Back Down” and the parent trigger law will lead to a long-overdue discussion of education policy on the national stage.
Watch the trailer for “Won’t Back Down”:
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.