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Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush Talk Parent Triggers and Bipartisanship

By Alyson Klein — August 28, 2012 4 min read
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Tampa, Fla.

Parent-trigger laws: Coming Soon to a Theater—and a Statehouse—Near You?

They could be, if Jeb Bush and Michelle Rhee have their way. The pair gave both the new parent-trigger-inspired movie “Won’t Back Down"—and the policy itself—a bipartisan thumbs up at a panel following a screening of the film, held just blocks away from the Republican National Convention here.

The film is about a parent and a teacher trying to take over a failing fictional school in Pittsburgh, under a fictional parent-trigger law. (Check out Edweek’s can’t-miss review here.) Such laws give parents tools to overhaul and restructure school operations, by converting them to charters by petition, for example.

“What I love about the film is it puts a human face on nerdy policy,” said Bush, the former governor of Florida. “This is a much more effective way of communicating the challenges that our country faces. ... We need to take [education reform] out of a political context and take it to something where it’s a top priority of parents.” (Bush’s own state narrowly failed to pass its own version of a parent-trigger law earlier this year.)

Right now, Rhee said, parents are engaged, but they’re mostly concerned with their own children’s education, not the whole system.

“We’re trying to help them understand that you have to get involved politically on things like teacher tenure,” said Rhee, who is the former chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools and now serves as the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, an education-redesign advocacy organization in Sacramento.

If parents get organized in a major way, it might “rock the boat” but it will be worth it for kids, she added.

But if it were up to Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, a 1.6 million-member union in Washington, folks would be throwing rotten tomatoes at the movie’s portray of parent-trigger laws—and teachers’ unions.

“I don’t recognize the teachers portrayed in this movie, and I don’t recognize that union,” she said in a statement released before the screening. “But instead of focusing on real parent empowerment and how communities can come together to help all children succeed, ‘Won’t Back Down’ offers parents a false choice—you’re either for students or for teachers, you can either live with a low-performing school or take dramatic, disruptive action to shut a school down.”

Wide-Ranging Discussion

Both Bush and Rhee spoke at a panel after the screening featuring the film-makers and moderated by CNN’s Campbell Brown.

The film was produced by Walden Media, which was also behind the similarly-themed documentary “Waiting for Superman.” For more background, read this story.

The panel wasn’t all parent triggers—there was some broader K-12 political discussion.

Education policy used to be the one area in Washington where Republicans and Democrats could come together to get something bipartisan and big done—witness the coalition that passed the now-much maligned No Child Left Behind Act. But lately, Washington (well, Congress) has been dysfunctional even on this issue. Exhibit A: the meltdown of reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

But during the panel, both Rhee and Bush expressed optimism that Republicans and “reform-minded” Democrats could come together on education policy.

Policies like parent trigger “are a chance for Switzerland,” Bush said, referring to the famously neutral country. “I don’t think the differences that exist between Romney and Obama on education are as big as on tax policy” and other issues, he added. “We’re in this climate of negativity, and there may be more agreement here than people want to admit.”

Bush said that Obama “did a good thing for the country” in selecting Arne Duncan as his secretary of education. He even had kind words for Race to the Top (without actually mentioning Obama’s signature education-redesign initiative by name), praising the “incentives for non-reform-minded states.”

But it was clear Bush thinks the states are where its at when it comes to education redesign —and that Romney is his man.

“I just don’t think there’s a five-point plan from Washington that will solve” the problems the movie highlights, he said. “Mitt Romney will be a good president on education for one simple reason: He’s been a governor.” And governors are the ones who really deal with K-12 policy.

Other tidbits: Bush said that there will be at least one speech at the convention on education policy (referring, I’m guessing, to his own address on Thursday). And he’s not betting that education will be a major issue this fall—he put $2 on it showing up in only one question across the three upcoming presidential debates.


Meanwhile, the audience’s reaction to the film was universally rapturous—and attendees were glad that folks on the other side of the aisle will get a chance to see it.

“I’m inspired,” said Lanette McKinley from Orange County, Calif., who is in town as the guest of a delegate. “I’m glad they’re showing this at the Democratic one.”

And the filmmakers may have a new quote for their poster, courtesy of Karisa Workman, who teaches communication at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

“If I happened to be a bureaucrat looking out for my own interests, I would be scared to death,” she said. “This movie is going to incite a revolution.”

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