Families & the Community

‘Parent Trigger’ Goes to the Big Screen

By Sean Cavanagh — July 25, 2012 4 min read
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Over the past few years, “parent-trigger” laws have been touted in school districts and statehouses as bold, even radical strategies for fixing struggling schools, though the policies have also proved divisive, giving rise to lawsuits and political rancor. This fall, the trigger concept will be judged in a very different forum, with its own standards for success: the box office.

On Sept. 28, the movie “Won’t Back Down,” a fictional account of frustrated parents seeking to transform a school in Pittsburgh, will open in theaters around the country. The trailer to the film (see the clip below) says that it is “inspired by actual events,” leading to speculation that it will closely mirror real-life examples of parents attempting to use trigger policies to take control of low-performing schools in Compton and Adelanto, Calif.

The movie, distributed by 20th Century Fox and produced by Walden Media, stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a parent and Viola Davis as a teacher who work together to marshal support in the community for a petition to overhaul the school and resuscitate it academically.

But that storyline has stirred fears among critics of parent-trigger laws that “Won’t Back Down” will extol those policies, ignore their shortcomings, and cast blame for schools’ struggles primarily on teachers.

Parent-trigger policies typically allow parents to overhaul the structure and operations of their schools, by replacing their staff, converting schools to charters, or other means, if a majority of parents sign petitions agreeing to those changes. Seven states have some type of trigger law on the books, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The policy’s primary testing ground so far has been California, where legislators approved a trigger law in 2010.

Efforts by parents to capitalize on that authority have met strong resistance. A petition drive to tranform a struggling school in Compton stalled amid acrimony and legal challenges. A separate effort to tranform a low-performing elementary school in the Adelanto school system, northeast of Los Angeles, provoked a similiar standoff. But last week, a San Bernardino Superior Court judge overruled the objections of district leaders and said a group of parents had the right to move forward with converting the school to a charter.

Backers of trigger policies say they empower parents who want to make sweeping improvements to their schools but otherwise lack the legal rights and political clout to do so. Others say the laws divide communities, cast unfair blame for schools’ ills on teachers, and leave parents vulnerable to dubious ideas for improving schools put forward by those outside their communities, such as charter-school operators.

Caroline Grannan, a member of Parents Across America, a nationwide advocacy group which has raised concerns about the film, said she worries it will offer a similar message to the 2010 documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” which described families’ efforts to obtain a sound education for their children, but was panned by many teachers who said it unfairly cast educators as primarily responsible for schools’ shortcomings. (Walden Media co-produced “Waiting for ‘Superman.’”)

Grannan acknowledged that like other critics, her reading of the new movie’s message is speculative: as of a recent interview, she was basing her views of “Won’t Back Down” on the trailer, since it is still months from its official release. But she says those snippets suggest the film will gloss over the friction and uncertainty spawned in communities like Compton and Adelanto by parent-trigger proposals, and present the “bad teacher” as the central obstacle to improving schools.

“It’s likely to contribute to a climate in which teachers are blamed,” Grannan said of the film. Efforts to use parent-trigger policies, she said, have “devolved into conflict and chaos,” and any film that suggests otherwise is “completely false.”

School improvement does not occur through “instant miracles,” she added, “but Hollywood loves them.”

But David Weil, the CEO of the Anschutz Film Group, of which Walden Media is a part, said those concerns are off the mark. Weil, who responded to questions in an e-mail, said the story is not tied to “any one law or event,” and that the film depicts a number of parents and teachers—one of whom is portrayed by Davis, a recent Oscar nominee—collaborating in making changes to a school, not doing battle. Several key characters, he said, “are teachers and are central heroes to the story.”

“We believe that teachers are the unsung heroes of our society and they represent our hope for the future as a nation,” Weil said. “When audiences screen the film in its entirety, they’ll find that the film tells the story of a school where the majority of the teachers are engaged and working to find solutions to the challenges they face in the system.”

Weil cautioned against judging “Won’t Back Down” by its trailer. “Would you judge a book by its cover?” he said. While the preview “depicts some of the storylines and issues that are featured in the film,” he said, it is not meant to “summarize the plot.”

Educators, parents, and other filmgoers will have the opportunity to give the movie their own, complete screening two months from now.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.