"Won't Back Down" and Parent Trigger Laws
Movie raises issues about controversial laws that allow parents to take over schools
If you're looking to go to the movies this weekend, your choices for new flicks are pretty slim.
You have one movie about cartoon monsters living in a hotel together. Another about a guy who travels back in time to save himself from getting killed by the mob. Then there's one about a teacher and a single mother who fight to take over a struggling school.
Surprisingly, it's the last one that's been getting the most attention.
"Won't Back Down" stars Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a teacher and parent duo who are dissatisfied with the performance of their local school. Instead of going elsewhere, they opt to take advantage of new laws that allow parents and teachers to essentially take over a school if it is underperforming.
The plot seems relatively benign, but as Davis, Gyllenhaal and other stars walked the red carpet at the movie premiere on Sunday, they were met by jeers from parents, teachers, and organizers from community groups who were protesting the movie, and the laws upon which the movie is loosely based.
Parent trigger laws allow parents to petition for change, and if they gather 51 percent of school parents' signatures, they can overthrow the school and 1) fire the principal, 2) fire half of the teachers, 3) close the school and let parents find another option, and/or 4) convert the school into a charter school.
Spoiler alert: In "Won't Back Down," the "good guys" win, the school is converted into a charter and Davis' character runs it. But in real life, opponents to the parent trigger laws say this isn't simply a matter of good versus bad, and they claim that the laws are really about allowing corporations, not parents, to take over schools. Parent trigger law opponent PR Watch questions if the movie is a work of propaganda, given that the film's producers are Philip Anschutz's Walden Media and Rupert Murdoch, both of whom are on record as staunch supporters of right-wing agendas.
Even Rosie Perez, who plays a teacher in the movie, was hesitant when asked her thoughts about parent trigger laws.
"That’s a tricky question," said Perez, at the movie premiere. "If I say I agree with that, you’re asking me if I agree with charter schools and if I agree that private companies can come in and take over schools and I am not saying that. What I am saying is that anybody should have the right to ask for change and demand change in public education."
The main protagonist on the real life issue of parent trigger laws is the nonprofit organization Parent Revolution. Founded in 2009 by former Los Angeles deputy mayor Ben Austin, the organization helps parents who want to enforce parent-trigger laws to change the underperforming schools that their kids are attending. Austin convinced legislators to include parent-trigger legislation in a 2010 education-reform bill. The organization's aim is to change schools for the betterment of the children, rather than meet the needs of frustrated educators.
The mission statement on its website reads:
"Our team works directly with parents at underperforming schools in Los Angeles and throughout California to help parents organize to transform their children’s under-performing schools using California’s historic Parent Trigger law. We use sophisticated and cutting-edge community organizing techniques to help parents organize, create Parents Union chapters, build power, analyze their school’s performance, and fight for kids-first reforms that will dramatically improve academic outcomes for their children."
"Parents don’t care how many lobbyists you have,” Austin said in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. “They just care what’s good for kids.”
Parents being in full control of their children's education sounds like a perfect idea. When parents are in control of the school, they can be hands-on and help determine who gets hired to teach their children and also have a say in what is included in the curriculum. A study conducted by the Michigan Department of Education found that increased parental involvement in schools leads to higher grades and test scores, higher graduation rates, better school attendance, lower rates of suspension, decreased use of drugs and alcohol and fewer instances of violent behavior.
Parent Revolution's current cause is that of Desert Trails Elementary. Located in Adelanto, Calif., the school is the worst of 12 failing schools in its 13 school district. According to Bloomberg News, 68 percent of graduating sixth graders failed proficiency tests in math and English-language arts. Earlier this year, the Desert Trails Parents Union, a parent-led, Parent Revolution-assisted organization, came close to taking over Desert Trails Elementary when they garnered the necessary amount of signatures. But the school district, and some parents, accused the group of lying about what was on the petitions being signed. Some felt duped into thinking the petitions were for new computers, not a school overhaul. In addition to that conflict, the district refused to relinquish control of the school saying that the parents were not prepared to implement plans for the 2012-13 school year. So, instead of converting Desert Trails into a charter school, a judge ruled that the school adopt an "alternate governance" that includes a longer school day and better computers.
Parent Revolution also tried to help parents take over McKinley Elementary in Compton, Calif., in June 2011, but failed because they forgot to put date boxes on the petition forms, making them invalid. Mistakes like that and the suspected trickery on the Desert Trails forms have many opponents of parent trigger laws saying that parents should avoid using the law, and organizations like Parent Revolution.
Their main reason is that the nonprofit organization is backed by big time corporate money. Parent Revolution's list of contributors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation, and The Broad Foundation. Naysayers worry that money like that can and will influence the school's hiring methods and curricula. Parent trigger laws also have ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the lobbyist group which has also supported the controversial "Stand Your Ground Laws" and has supported initiatives for for-profit education and privatized education.
"The law that is being pushed around the country was written and backed by ALEC, a conservative group, and they get it completely wrong," said Jonathan Westin, organizing director at New York Communities for Change, one of the groups that organized the protest on Sunday. "This Hollywood version of the parent trigger law is not reality, and the reality is that parent trigger is used to bring in private corporate managers and cut out parent involvement."
On a community level, opponents of parent trigger laws say that the process is simply unfair to begin with.
"Why should 51 percent of the parents be able to take ownership of something that belongs to the public?” education historian and New York University professor Diane Ravitch told Bloomberg. “Should 51 percent of people in a public park be able to decide that they want to take control and hand it over to a private developer who can then build apartment buildings?”
As the debate over the effectiveness and ethics surrounding parent trigger laws grows, more states are considering adopting them.
As of September, Connecticut, Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas have voted to accept them. Twenty more states are reportedly considering them as well.
"Won't Back Down" opens nationwide Friday. Despite all the fuss about his film, director Daniel Barnz, who himself is the son of two school teachers, says his movie is a simple David versus Goliath film--the story of a teacher and a mother who were seemingly helpless, but who were able to take on bureaucrats to fix their school.
"This movie is about something different [from parent trigger laws], where you have a fictional law where if you have a failing public school, 50 percent of the parents have to come together with 50 percent of the teachers," says Barnz. "I am a film maker and I would never be presumptuous enough to propose a solution. My job is to pose questions: could we figure out a way for parents and teachers to come together to fix our schools?
Barnz says that while he is happy that the movie has sparked conversations about school reform,
"Some of the discussions get very adult centered and we kind of lose focus on the kids," says Barnz. "What I wish is that as people are debating, that they keep an eye on what we can do for kids in failing public schools right now."
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