The film's plot is predictable: One engaged parent and a dedicated teacher are the beloved heroes, while the teachers' union and an apathetic school board are rendered useless, and at times rogue. "Won't Back Down," in theaters starting Friday, tells the story (inspired by true events) of our decayed public school system in America; and in true Hollywood fashion these two "Norma Raes" give us a fight that stirs our emotions but does little to highlight the complexities of a system that has been broken for decades. As often happens in bureaucracies, the original focus and intent of the work becomes murky and unclear, and the children become lost amid tall ambitions — a small subplot of an adult hero movie.
Set in Pittsburgh, a city with many similarities to Charm City, we see images, against the backdrop of a fading manufacturing town, of hardworking single mothers, quirky yet devoted teachers, and laborious administrative policies that seem geared to deflate the energy of committed members of society. Class issues play out throughout the film, in real and subtle ways, illustrating the angst and frustration of city parents who often feel voiceless and powerless within the public school system. Yet, two women from disparate socioeconomic backgrounds find common ground when both are faced with the task of finding better public school alternatives for their children with learning differences.
At their disposal is a newly established "parent trigger law," legislation that has gained tremendous traction across the country recently. In 2010, California enacted the first such law enabling dissatisfied parents (and teachers) to take over academically struggling public schools and reinvent them into alternative models of education. However, this legislation is not without flaws, as such efforts often prompt extreme positions, with different interest groups focused on assigning blame and student success taking a back seat. These polarities (school officials/teachers unions versus parents/child advocates) move our eyes off the mark, distracting us from the real work at hand. We need only to consider the recent Chicago Public Schools teachers strike to illustrate this point.
Efforts to enact a similar Maryland law have been unsuccessful, yet the state has embraced a related effort by supporting the authorization of charter schools, with a total of 52 established across the state — 35 of those in Baltimore City. Some view charter schools as the panacea for public education because several (though by no means all) have demonstrated proven methods of success. However, there are traditional schools in the city that thrive as well and should be commended for their commitment to our students.
Where we go wrong is in focusing on fault and blame when it comes to the failing schools (charters and traditional) in our district. If we allow ourselves to remain in the contentious "us versus them" state depicted in "Won't Back Down," it will be a missed opportunity for our fair city. We must avoid unproductive debates and instead focus on the models that foster success.
So how do we get there? Most educational researchers assert that parental involvement is a key component to solving the achievement puzzle for any school. Parents like Jamie Fitzpatrick, the single mom of a dyslexic child in "Won't Back Down," are necessary to "occupy" our schools — not overthrow them. The Mocha Moms, an organization for women of color who are full-time parents, recently rolled out its "Occupy Schools" initiative, calling for supportive and engaged parents/advocates to be a consistent yet positive force in our educational system. Right on!
Tossing blame may work in the city we both love and love to hate, but before us lies the opportunity to express the scrappy yet determined spirit for which Baltimore is known. It's time to roll up our sleeves and start expecting more from our schools — but also of ourselves. And just as is seen in "Won't Back Down," we can rally the troops, not to take over schools but to contribute our time, resources and ideas to offer the world-class education all of our children deserve. This approach allows us to operate on common ground with all interested parties while ensuring that the students are the real plot in our version of this film.
Kimberly R. Moffitt, a Baltimore resident, is assistant professor of American Studies at UMBC and a founder of the Baltimore Collegiate School for Boys, a charter school due to open in 2014. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.