I still remember feeling my face turning red as I was called upon to read in fourth grade. I was just guessing at the words.
I had been taught in the New York City public schools, which used the so-called whole language method to teach reading. Instead of teaching what letters sound like as in the phonics method, the whole language method essentially left kids on their own to guess at the words and figure out how to read.
Rather than moving me along to the next grade, as the New York City schools had done, my school in Cambridge, Mass., placed me in a remedial reading class, where I was taught that “a” is pronounced “ay” or “ah.”
By the time we moved a year later to Belmont, Mass., I was reading above grade level. I went on to become a reporter on the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post and to write 19 non-fiction books about the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA.
But the poor, mostly minority kids at the fictional Adams Elementary never had that chance. As depicted in the movie “Won’t Back Down,” Adams was full of “zombie” teachers who cared more about their union benefits and tenure than whether their students learned anything. Set in Pittsburgh, the movie was inspired by the real-life efforts of parents in California who took over their children’s struggling elementary school and fostered competition.
The powerful film, which opens in theaters on Sept. 28, could spark a revolution in America, galvanizing parents to close down their failing schools and replace them with schools where teachers do their jobs. That’s what happened when a determined mother, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, decides she will not allow her little girl to become a failure, as I was sure I was in fourth grade.
Driven by her daughter’s inability to read, she perseveres in the face of retaliation, derision, and thinly veiled bribery — an attempt to buy her off was made by offering her daughter a full scholarship at an expensive private school where most of the school board members send their children.
“Have you heard about those mothers who lift one-ton trucks off their babies?” she asks a teachers’ union rep played by Holly Hunter. “They’re nothing compared to me.”
Gyllenhaal enlists another mother, a teacher played by Viola Davis, to fight the unions, the principal, and the school board to take over Adams under the provisions of a state law. Such so-called Parent Trigger laws have been enacted in California, Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. A dozen other states are considering them.
Devised by former Clinton White House adviser Ben Austin, the law allows frustrated parents to replace teachers or take over their schools entirely if 50 percent of them sign a petition. Typically pushed by Republicans, such charter schools receive public funds but are free of the usual union restrictions on firing incompetent teachers and working longer hours.
Austin directed the successful campaign to transform Locke High School from the worst high school in Los Angeles into a college preparatory model of reform.
The movie is from Walden Media, which is best known for “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and the 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman.” As noted in my story "Quiet Social Conservative Advises Romney,"
Walden Media’s president and co-founder Michael Flaherty is the brother of Peter G. Flaherty II, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney and his former deputy chief of staff when Romney was Massachusetts governor.
Walden Media is owned by conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz and strives to produce films that are both uplifting and profitable. Since its founding in 2011, Walden Media has grossed more than $2 billion in worldwide box-office sales.
If “Won’t Back Down” is inspiring, so is the bipartisan support behind the movie and its cause. At their recent conventions, both Republicans and Democrats approved screenings of “Won’t Back Down” through 20th Century Fox. Mitt Romney has endorsed the idea of Parent Trigger laws as a state solution to school reform.
A Democratic activist and early supporter of Barack Obama, Austin is on a mission to enact Parent Trigger laws through his California-based Parent Revolution. The effort is funded in part by the liberal-leaning Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Given the fact that Walden Media is backed by a conservative, Austin says “I thought it was a prank” when the movie company called to say it was joining his fight.
But Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers’ union, has already fired off an open letter denouncing “Won’t Back Down.”
“I don’t recognize teachers portrayed in this movie, and I don’t recognize that union,” she said.
I do. If it were not for teachers in Cambridge who cared, I could have been one of those kids who faced a lifetime of failure. And yes, at the end of “Won’t Back Down,” Gyllenhaal’s daughter can read.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. He is the New York Times best-selling author of books on the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA. Read more reports from Ronald Kessler — Click Here Now.
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