By most accounts, “Won’t Back Down” is a film that everyone would like to forget.

The cringe-inducing anti-teachers’ unions movie may have had the backing of wealthy corporate education reformers, but the magnates couldn’t seem to use their entrepreneurial spirit to cobble together a decent flick. The astroturfers dream, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, completely flopped at the box office when it was released last fall. In fact, if movie-goers’ taste is the sole metric, “Won’t Back Down” was the worst major film in the history of cinema. The Huffington Post reported that the $2.6 million it took in on its debut weekend set “the record for worst opening of a film that released in over 2,500 theaters.”

If the billionaire backers of this film — Philip Anschutz, through Walden Media, and Rupert Murdoch through 20th Century Fox — held their production to the same standards that they want to impose on public schools, every last copy of “Won’t Back Down” would be sealed in a series of wet cement laden oil drums and eventually heaved into Lake Superior. Yet they won’t let it die. They just (sorry) won’t back down. According to the AP, they’ve stripped the movie of its flimsy pseudo-artistic pretensions, and have placed it at the center a new lobbying effort:

[T]he film’s creators, and a cadre of influential admirers, have more than ticket sales in mind. They hope the classroom drama about two single moms in Pittsburgh trying to save their kids’ failing inner-city school also sparks a wave of activism while igniting widespread legal changes to give parents more control over how their children learn.

“Won’t Back Down” is the centerpiece of a national six-month, U.S. Chamber of Commerce tour of major cities and state capitals, including Albany, N.Y, Indianapolis, Phoenix and San Diego. Business leaders and education reform groups want to leverage the film’s message into broader policy changes modeled on California’s 2010 “parent trigger” law, which allows a simple majority of petition-signing parents to fire principals, boot out poor teachers, take over failing schools and convert them to public charter schools often operated as private businesses.

But like it’s initial release, the resurrection of “Won’t Back Down” as a shameless lobbying tool instead of a subliminal one isn’t exactly proving to be a smashing success thus far:

The private screenings allow the business group’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce and lobbyists from organizations such as StudentsFirst, the education reform group created by former Washington, D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee, to woo state lawmakers over beer and finger sandwiches, as was the case recently in Jefferson City


Only a handful of Missouri lawmakers watched the movie, and not many more showed up at an education panel discussion the next morning at a Jefferson City art gallery.

Still, it’s not hard to see why all parties involved are keen on risking total embarrassment (again) by frog-marching this cinematic war crime across America:

“[O]n Thursday, one week later, [Missouri] Speaker of the House Tim Jones filed a parent trigger bill that would allow parents at schools ranking in the bottom 20 percent on state standardized tests to petition for charter status, or gain authority to fire teachers and principals. Jones filed a similar bill last year that didn’t advance out of committee.”

But if this initiative does achieve anything, it’s doubtful that the charter schools “parent triggers” aim to create would benefit anyone other than the companies that run them, and the barons determined to bust teachers unions.

According to PRWatch and Christopher Lubienski, Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Organization at the University of Illinois:

The data shows that the conversion to charter schools, which Lubienski said is the constant theme running throughout the “Parent Trigger” legislation passed in states, has not shown to be effective in improving student outcomes. A study conducted at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution presents evidence that students in only 17 percent of charter school show greater improvement in math and reading than students in similar traditional public schools, whereas 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than the student would have realized had they remained in public schools. However, the conversion to charter schools has proven profitable to many U.S. firms such as ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] member National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter school management organization operating in eight states, and K-12, Inc., which promotes “virtual” charter schools as well as “virtual” voucher schools. K-12, Inc. is under investigation in Florida for improperly certifying teachers and asking them to cover it up.

Samuel Knight

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.