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Former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee called for classroom teachers unhappy with the system to brace themselves for battle. She spoke during a panel following the showing of “Won’t Back Down,” a film to be released this fall about a parent and teacher fighting to take over a failing school.

Won’t Back Down movie
Outside the 2012 Republican convention. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)

“There is a difference in my mind between teacher union leadership and rank-and-file teachers,” she said, adding that most teachers got into the profession wanting to have a positive impact. Fixing problems, she said, is “going to require teachers steeling themselves up and getting ready for a fight.”

“Won’t Back Down” features Maggie Gyllenhaal as the parent of a dyslexic daughter with a clearly incompetent teacher, and Viola Davis as a teacher who is convinced to try to shake up the system. Together, they work to get 50 percent of parents and teachers on their side to take advantage of a “fail-safe” trigger law that allows parents to take over a failing school.   Along the way they battle the teachers’ union and school-board bureaucracy.

The film was shown at an event sponsored by Rhee’s advocacy organization, StudentsFirst, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a group founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

“Won’t Back Down” has already been criticized for ignoring realities of the education system and overinflating the efficacy of parent trigger laws. These laws, which in theory allow a school takeover if 50 percent of parents sign a petition demanding so, have yet to be successfully implemented. In the past two years, such laws have been passed in seven states. Despite some attempts, no school has undergone a takeover as a result.

Given that, critics of the film question the claim that it was inspired by true events. But in the panel discussion director Daniel Barnz didn’t pretend it was based on a true story. “We tried to channel a fundamental truth about parents who can’t wait,” Barnz said, adding that he drew upon newspaper articles and other stories in crafting the film, which he described as a “utopia.”

“I’m a sucker for David-and-Goliath stories,” Barnz said. “What I really wanted to emphasize in the film is how people can work together.”

There is room in parent trigger laws for people to do just that, said Bush, one of the panelists discussing the film. “This is the one little Switzerland where the left and the right can agree,” he said.

But the parent trigger law doesn’t do enough, Bush said. He called for greater increases in school choice across the board, which is part of Romney’s education policy.

Rhee said she was unhappy that, despite both candidates taking clear stances on many education issues, the topic largely has been untouched on the campaign trail. “We are not talking about this issue nearly enough in this presidential election,” Rhee said. “I would hope we try to force the issue more.”

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