New movie 'Won't Back Down' makes the case for education reform
“Won’t Back Down” is “inspired by actual events.” The film’s primary plotline centers on a “trigger law” that, although fictional, resembles a legal mechanism spurring current events.
In 2010 California passed the first law enabling parents to essentially take over a floundering public school. After obtaining signatures from parents of more than half a school’s students, a parental group becomes vested with the authority to pursue one of four options — a new staff, a new principal, school closure or converting the school to a charter school.
Three states have adopted trigger laws similar to California’s, and 12 more are considering doing the same. By way of comparison, the trigger law in “Won’t Back Down” requires signatures from not only most parents but also a majority of the school’s teachers in order to facilitate a de facto takeover.
The California trigger law has yet to be fully realized. But in the windswept Mojave Desert bedroom community of Adelanto (population: 31,765), a group of parents acquired the necessary signatures in January to invoke the Golden State’s trigger law. And ever since, from courtroom venues to contentious school board meetings, those parents have been fighting tooth-and-nail to install a nonprofit charter operator over Desert Trails Elementary School — where 68 percent of graduating sixth graders failed core proficiency exams last year.
Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Caroline Winter recently covered the ongoing drama in Adelanto with the article “In California, Public School Parents Stage a Coup.”
“‘Won’t Back Down’ is the Hollywood version,” Winter told the Deseret News, noting that the film is not affiliated with anyone in Adelanto or Parent Revolution, the nonprofit organization that actively supports the movement to take over Desert Trails Elementary. “But it’s an interesting case because usually these sorts of movies are made after-the-fact, after the social movement has already happened. ‘Won’t Back Down’ is close enough to what’s happening right now in Adelanto — and it touches on this nerve of parents being incredibly frustrated with their children’s schools — that it may actually have some influence on the movement.”
Based in Los Angeles, Parent Revolution first lobbied California’s legislature to pass the trigger law and now works to help interested parents implement it. It’s no surprise, then, that Parent Revolution’s website is promoting “Won’t Back Down” as the “story of a community taking back and fixing its broken school” that “hits close to home — a bit too close for far too many.”
The trigger law is controversial. Many parents in Adalanto withdrew their names from the petition, teacher unions are opposed and the school district has spent more than $170,000 in legal fees to fight the takeover.
A Florida woman whose work helped kill a proposed trigger law in Florida told Winter for her Businessweek article that parents can have a positive effect without a trigger law. "(Caroline Grannan of Parents Across America) points out that charters overall don’t outperform public schools," Winter wrote, "and suggests that instead of pulling the trigger, parents should assert their voices by voting in good school board members, getting to know administrators and getting involved in schools."
Some parents feel those traditional methods need to be enhanced.
“Parent Revolution is working with parents at about a dozen schools in California right now,” Winter said. “Ben Austin, Parent Revolution's executive director, has said that he hopes, down the line, that the parent trigger will be thought of less as a revolutionary law and more as simply a bargaining chip that gives parents actual influence so they can have a seat at the table along with teachers unions and school administrators.”
J.G. Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-236-6051.
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