BH Interview: School Reformer Michelle Rhee on the Real Life Horror Stories Behind 'Won't Back Down'

Michelle Rhee fought – and fought – against the teachers unions during her tenure as chancellor of the D.C. Public School System.

The battle was ugly, but it remained clean.

That’s hardly the case in other cities where teachers unions battle school reformers for the scholastic lives of the country’s kids.

“We see it over and over again, people just doing common sense actions [for school reform] who were threatened, harassed, pigeonholed as anti-teacher,” Rhee tells Big Hollywood. “The system is not working if you can’t question some of the policies without being branded as an outcast.”


Rhee has plenty of horror stories about union-friendly forces fighting back against those trying to reform a broken system.

Some teachers target the children of concerned parents, saying, “your mommy is trying to fire us" in front of the child's entire classroom. Other teachers refuse to write letters of recommendation for the college-bound students whose parents are pursuing school choice options. She's even heard of union members threatening to deport parents who weren’t in the country legally if they kept up the fight against the status quo. 

It’s a battlefield depicted in “Won’t Back Down,” the new movie opening Friday starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as a parent and teacher, respectively, trying to turn around a failing school. The film tells a fictional story based on real events where parents fought for more say in their children’s education.

Rhee wasn’t involved in the film’s production, but she’s thrown her weight behind the finished product.

“They had done a remarkable job capturing some of the difficult tensions within the reform movement,” she says.

She says the film isn’t a union-bashing affair as its critics allege. Far from it.

Consider a sequence in which one of the main characters recalls how the unions fought to keep a great teacher from being unfairly fired. The movie’s male interest, played by Oscar Isaac, is an unabashed union supporter. Even the film's heavy, played by Holly Hunter, is granted a measure of humanity.

“For an average person, it’s not an anti-union movie at all,” she says.

That said, she’s hardly shocked to see pro-union protesters greeting the film’s premiere earlier this week.

“It did not shock me. It shocked a lot of the people from the movie, the actresses and [director] Daniel Barnz,” she says. “I’ve been in this game for a while. I knew it would cause a lot of controversy.”


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