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

'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.

Kerry Hayes/20th Century Fox/AP
This film image shows Maggie Gyllenhaal (r.) and Viola Davis in a scene from 'Won't Back Down.'

For parents who have struggled to navigate school bureaucracy on behalf of their children, the new film “Won’t Back Down” may offer a great opportunity for vicarious empowerment.

The film stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a frustrated, feisty parent and Viola Davis as a dedicated teacher who together lead a takeover effort at a failing public school. It’s fictional, but by touting itself as inspired by actual events, it has become a centerpiece in real-world debates over the best ways to make troubled schools better, and more responsive to parents.

Critics of the film say it glamorizes “parent-trigger” laws – mechanisms already passed in seven states by which a majority of parents can force out the staff of a low-performing school or transform it into a public charter school. These laws are about parents in name only, some opponents say, and are just another way to turn schools into autonomous charter schools where normal district rules, such as traditional union contracts, sometimes don’t apply, and where profit-motive can come into play.

The film’s backers say it reflects the problems parents face in public schools, and can prompt them to be more involved in finding solutions.

“It’s not about any one law or any one event.... Our goal is to entertain and inspire through the spirit and the empowerment of the characters – parents and teachers working together to overcome challenges,” says David Weil, CEO of the Anschutz Film Group, which includes “Won’t Back Down” production company Walden Media.

Owned by Christian conservative Philip Anschutz, Walden Media also backed the 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which portrayed teachers unions as a main obstacle to improving education.

“Won’t Back Down” goes “beyond bashing the teachers and unions.... It literally assaults the entire profession,” says Rita Solnet, an activist in Boca Raton, Fla., who has fought a parent-trigger law there and who helped found the national network Parents Across America, which opposes the expansion of high-stakes testing and charter schools. “I worry that this is going to begin to pit parents against teachers and principals,” she says.

Some others see the film portraying teachers in a positive light.

In the film, parents and teachers together petition for changes. “In a traditional school, it would be difficult to get 50 percent of teachers to sign on ..., but that device allows the director to bring teachers to the center of reform,” says Andrew Kelly, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, who has studied parent organizing. “In that respect [this film is] different from ‘Waiting for Superman.’... Teachers are some of the heroes.”

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.

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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