EDUCATION reform is a bipartisan issue that too often gets mired in polarized positions. In the tussle between teacher unions going to the mattresses for the status quo and conservative think tanks storming the citadels, what can be forgotten is that reform is about children and how they learn.
Malia Fitzpatrick isn't learning much at Adams Elementary in Pittsburgh, Pa. Her classmates aren't learning much either. Neither their teacher nor the administration seems to care.
Malia's story frames “Won't Back Down,” a new movie from Walden Media. (The company is owned by The Anschutz Corp., which owns this newspaper.) Her face is in opening and closing scenes that will stay with viewers as long as “Education Reform” is chalked on the blackboards of teacher unions and think tanks.
The movie opened Friday at theaters and comes two years after Walden Media's “Waiting for ‘Superman'” hit the big screen. That documentary made waves. “Won't Back Down,” a fictional story inspired by real events, will make waves as well. It already has.
The movie was screened at both political conventions this summer. Democrats are reluctant to embrace education reform because teacher union heads don't like reform. They are loath to admit that some public schools are so bad, the conditions so entrenched, that a parent-led takeover is the only hope.
Adams is such a school. It is failing Malia and her classmates. Malia's mother learns of a means to reorganize the school along with other parents and some of the teachers. They try to do so, against all odds.
“Won't Back Down” brings to mind “Norma Rae,” the 1980 Best Picture nominee about a courageous woman who organizes a textile mill where she works. The meme is even picked up in “Won't Back Down” with a teacher union official recalling the inspiration of her parents' struggle to organize a mill.
The transition from “Norma Rae” to “Won't Back Down” is the story of our times. It's a story of unions founded to bring balance to the workplace and protect the oppressed but then becoming the oppressors, using intimidation, threats and self-preservation strategies that rob children of their due.
“Won't Back Down” will be dismissed by some critics who haven't cleaned an eraser since the 1960s. It's surprisingly balanced, however. The union view isn't shut out or demonized. The failure rate of schools taken over is noted. Real-world Malias face an uncertain future in such places.
What they don't face is the intransigence, indifference and ineptitude of the status-quo schools. Parents who care enough to take over a school will likely care enough to keep the fires burning. Given the well-organized, well-funded, well-connected resistance to education reform, it's a miracle that any reform makes it through the kryptonite brandished by unions.
Among the bogus arguments proffered by reform opponents is that charter schools hurt conventional schools. Heartbreaking scenes in both “Waiting for ‘Superman'” and “Won't Back Down” feature lotteries to get a slot in coveted schools. It's also wrong to think all public schools should be run on the charter model or that no unionized teacher has a passion for teaching. Many do.
The ones who don't, however, are propped up by their union bosses and by pandering politicians. Who loses? Kids like Malia Fitzpatrick. So we will give her the last word, as does the movie: