Who Backs 'Won’t Back Down'?

By Felicia Gustin
Oct 8, 2012

A not very "feel-good" attack on public education

The war on public education continues with the now familiar one-two punch of demonizing teachers and discrediting teachers unions. And it's come to a theater near you in the form of the heavily promoted new film, Won't Back Down, starring Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Holly Hunter.

Anti-public education? But the trailer looks so inspiring as "two determined mothers, a parent (Gyllenhaal) and a teacher (Davis), look to transform their children's failing inner city school. Facing a powerful and entrenched bureaucracy and corruption from the teacher's union president (Hunter) …they risk everything to make a difference in the education and future of their children."1

But despite the hype, what is most disconcerting about this film is who is behind it and their not-so-hidden agenda.

Walden Media, the studio responsible for Won't Back Down, is owned by reclusive Christian conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz, who has said he expects Walden movies "to be entertaining, but also to be life affirming and to carry a moral message."2

A moral message, huh? From the guy who Forbes ranks as the 47th richest person in the U.S. with an estimated net worth of $7.6 billion? 3 Isn't it wonderful how the 1 percent cares so much about inner city schools and the children who attend them?

Dig into Anschutz’s story and your head will spin at all the sectors of the economy this guy has his fingers in: pretty much all of them. From oil to banks to agribusiness to telecommunications to railroads to sports teams to utilities to media and entertainment companies, the list goes on and on. In 1999, Fortune magazine compared Anschutz to the 19th century tycoon J.P. Morgan, as both men "…operated across an astounding array of industries, mastering and reshaping entire economic landscapes." 4 Oh yeah, and Anschutz is a major donor to anti-gay, creationist, and other right-wing causes including efforts to privatize public education.

But this isn’t Walden Films first foray into the education reform debate. They are also the makers of Waiting for Superman, the 2010 documentary that advocated charter schools, teacher testing, and an end to tenure as potential solutions to the education crisis. But it wasn't a box office success. “We realized the inherent limitations of the documentary format,” said Michael Bostick, chief executive of Walden. “Now,” he said, “the idea is to reach a larger audience through the power of actors playing complicated characters who struggle with issues that happen to be, in his phrase, ‘ripped from the headlines.’” 5

“Parent trigger” propaganda

The headlines Bostick is referring to is the debate over “parent trigger” laws which purportedly allow parents to seize control of a failing school. But behind these efforts are a more insidious agenda that includes union busting, the promotion of for-profit charter schools, and bypassing elected school boards.

So aside from the above, what would be a billionaire businessman’s motives for making Won’t Back Down? How about the potential for billions of dollars in business? Not from the box office but from the money that stands to be made by privatizing education. 

“The K-12 market is tantalizingly huge.” writes Stephanie Simon, in a Huffington Post piece this past August. “The U.S. spends more than $500 billion a year to educate kids from ages five through 18. The entire education sector, including college and mid-career training, represents nearly 9 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, more than the energy or technology sectors.” 6

According to Zaid Jilani reporting in Think Progress, “A tight-knit group of right-wing millionaires and billionaires, bankers, industrialists, lobby shops, and hardcore ideologues has been plotting this war on public education, quietly setting up front group after front group to promote the idea that the only way to save public education is to destroy it — disguising their movement with the innocent-sounding moniker of ‘school choice.’” 7

This is where “parent trigger” laws come in. Won’t Back Down, set in Pennsylvania, centers on a fictional law modeled on California’s “parent trigger” legislation passed in 2010.

“In Compton and Adelanto, the only places where there have been attempts to invoke the parent trigger law,” writes Frank Wells for the California Teachers Association website newsletter, “the supposedly grassroots parent effort was agitated, organized and largely paid for by Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based group dedicated to the proliferation of parent trigger laws throughout the nation.” 8

Non-profit promoters of privatization

Parent Revolution is not alone. Huffington Post education reporter Joy Resmovits points to two other examples: Students First and Stand for Children.

Students First, founded by former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Margaret Rhee (the focus of the documentary Waiting for Superman), “reported $225 million in revenue between 2010 and 2013 -- and has used its revenues to set up shop in 16 states, where it's advancing legislation that abolishes or revises teacher tenure, opens the door for the creation of charter schools and parent trigger laws.” 9

In another article with Paul Blementhal, Resmovits writes, “Stand for Children is a non-profit education reform group advocating for the inclusion of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations, charter schools, and decreased teacher union power. Over the past three years, the group's political action committee has raised more than $4 million and doled out more than $1 million to politicians, political parties and other political committees in Chicago and around Illinois.

“All of that money -- raised from billionaires in hedge funds, private equity and real estate -- has been used to push Stand for Children's aggressive, hard-charging agenda, which assumes unionization often runs counter to the interest of education. Part of that agenda was attempting to make it impossible for the Chicago Teachers Union to strike, though it only made the union more defiant.”10

Fortunately this September, educators in Chicago were able to score a major victory for themselves and their students despite this big money being pumped into privatization and anti-union efforts.

“After just nine days on strike, the Chicago teachers union fought for and won a contract that includes hiring more than 600 additional teachers in art, music and physical education making textbooks available on the first day of school, and bringing the percentage of teacher evaluations that are decided by standardized test scores down to the legal minimum of 30 percent.”11

This victory in Chicago shows us that it is possible to stand up to the billionaires and multi-millionaires who are working to undermine public education through supposed grassroots efforts(“AstroTurf activism”) and who by the way, according to Resmovits, have a history of giving to both Republicans and Democrats.

Need inspiration to improve public education for our children? I’d suggest looking to Chicago teachers and pass on the right-wing anti-union message in Won’t Back Down.

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Won%27t_Back_Down_%28film%29
  2. Berkowitz, Bill. "The movie, the media, and the conservative politics of Philip Anschutz."Media Transparency, 2 December 2005)
  3. http://www.forbes.com/profile/philip-anschutz/
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Anschutz
  5. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/21/movies/viola-davis-and-maggie-gyllenhaal-in-parent-trigger-film.html?_r=0
  6. Privatizing Public Schools: Big Firms Eyeing Profits From U.S. K-12 Market- http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/02/private-firms-eyeing-prof_n_1732856.html
  7. http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2011/05/21/168363/billionaires-privatize-education/?mobile=nc
  8. http://www.cta.org/en/Professional-Development/Publications/2012/09/September-Educator-2012/Parent-Trigger.aspx
  9. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/24/michelle-rhees-backers-in_n_1300146.html
  10.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/14/chicago-teachers-stand-for-children_n_1885421.html
  11. http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/11774-chicago-teachers-verizon-workers-and-quebecs-students-prove-that-resistance-works

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Felicia Gustin has been with War Times since the beginning. She currently works at SpeakOut, a national organization working primarily with colleges, universities, and high schools and dedicated to the advancement of education, racial and social justice, leadership development and activism. She is a long-time activist in international solidarity, peace, racial justice and labor movements. She was a journalist for 10 years in Cuba and is currently working on several projects - an historical memoir and a poetry collection, among others.

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