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'Won't Back Down': A film to spur parent-led coups on public schools? (+video)

'Won't Back Down' portrays a parent and teacher leading a takeover effort at a failing school. It has become a centerpiece in debates over the best ways to make troubled schools better, and more responsive to parents.

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The idea of giving parents the option to force a school make-over has broad public support. Seventy percent of the public, and 76 percent of public-school parents, said they would favor a state law allowing “parents to petition to remove the leadership and staff at failing schools,” according to a recent national Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll.

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California became home to the first parent-trigger law in 2010. With the signatures of a majority of parents at a persistently low-performing school, parents can force dramatic changes. But in one of only a few cases of the law being activated, efforts to turn a school into a charter in Adelanto, Calif., have been caught up in court battles.

Similar laws have been considered in about 20 states and have been adopted in Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, Texas, and Connecticut, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The real barriers parents have faced in Adelanto are even worse than what “Won’t Back Down” depicts, says Ryan Donohue, deputy director of the national advocacy team of Parent Revolution, a California-based group that helps parents organize into unions to have leverage in their school districts. Parent Revolution plans to screen the film in about 40 locations around the country, and it is promoting the film on its website.

“Ideally, parents don’t want to have to pull that trigger,” Mr. Donohue says, but “we don’t see any reason why parents can’t go ahead and collectively bargain and ... represent their interests, in this case, the kids. All we’re asking for is that parents have a seat at the table, along with teachers, along with school board officials.”

But to Ms. Solnet and other Parents Across America activists, the parent-trigger laws are more an exploitation of parents. “People need to really understand that [a parent-trigger] law does nothing to empower parents,” Solnet says. “When that school gets handed over to a for-profit charter developer ... [the] person you elected to the school board can’t help you [if you have a grievance against the school].”

In Florida, she says, groups representing at least 500,000 parents came together against a parent-trigger law.

“Won’t Back Down” doesn’t show why the school failed, nor does it show students subjected to overkill testing and the failed reform efforts of the No Child Left Behind law, Solnet says.

Mr. Kelly of AEI says the film sets up problems in public education well, but “it holds up parent-trigger as a solution in itself rather than a means to it.... It’s classic Hollywood, but it’s not a scalable model of school reform,” he says.

The parents most likely to organize politically are the ones who start off, like Ms. Gyllenhaal’s character, as advocates for their own children, Kelly says. Once their children get a better opportunity, or graduate, there’s less incentive, so it’s hard to maintain a sizable group of parent activists. “Turning around underperforming schools is very, very difficult,” he says.

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