‘Won’t Back Down’: Parent Trigger Gets the Hollywood Treatment

In September, just as Oscar season is heating up, the movie “Won’t Back Down” will hit the theaters, promising to tell the inspiring story of a teacher and a parent – Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal – who join forces to transform their kids’ struggling school.

According to 20th Century Fox, “Won’t Back Down” is “a powerful story  of parenthood, friendship, hope and courage.”  It is also a fictionalized account of a successful campaign to pass a so-called “parent trigger” law.

Parent trigger laws, which are currently on the books in California, Texas and Mississippi and are being considered in more than 20 other states, allow parents of children enrolled in a “low performing” school to “trigger” change by taking formal, legal control of many school operations. In California, the law allows 51 percent of parents to sign a petition and force actions such as closing the school down completely, replacing the principal, firing 50 percent of the teachers, or converting it into a charter school.

Touted by supporters as parent “grass roots” in action, parent trigger bills are often funded by billionaires, policymakers, and think tanks who support charter school expansion and free market approaches to school reform.

Such a controversial education issue isn’t exactly a recipe for box office success or Oscar gold. Despite the furor in 2010 over “Waiting for Superman,” the pro-charter school documentary was actually a bust at the box office and failed to win an expected Oscar nomination.  With its two likable stars and the David-and-Goliath-against-the-odds facade, “Won’t Back Down” will be more digestible for the general public  – or so supporters of parent trigger laws and charter schools hope.

“Won’t Back Down” attempts to skirts the “teacher bashing” accusation by having a public school teacher (Davis) as one of the two lead characters – along with the parent played by Gyllenhaal – who are fighting to change the system. The fact that the film features a heroic teacher is encouraging. The problem is who is chosen to represent the “powerful and entrenched bureaucracy.”

You guessed it – the local teachers union representative, played by Holly Hunter.

It’s no coincidence that “Won’t Back Down” is funded in large part by Walden Media, the same company that bankrolled  “Waiting for Superman.” Walden Media is owned by Philip Anschutz, a right-wing billionaire who has a long history of supporting right-wing politicians and causes.

In a recent New York Times article, the filmmakers argued that the film will appeal to audiences because of the “human drama” at the core of the story, not the underlying political message. But will audiences leave the theater thinking that unions support the status quo and oppose parental involvement in schools? Probably.

Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Won't Back Down"

Parents are crucial players in school improvement efforts. Their support can advance a student’s ability to achieve, and when parents bring that energy into the school, working side-by-side with teachers, it contributes to a climate of collaboration and success within the classroom. School reform is, after all, a shared responsibility and the most effective policies are those that support policies and practices that link schools, families, and communities to raise student achievement. At Howenstine High Magnet School in Tucson, for example, union-led reform has implemented new initiatives to help struggling students succeed – just one of many sites across the country where collaboration is producing the right kind of reform.

Parent trigger bills, however, are being treated as a silver bullet – just give parents more control over school operations and achievement will increase. Obviously no such quick and easy solutions exist. And as the Los Angeles Times recently noted, the reform options outlined in the California law have “mixed to downright bad records.” In Florida, parent groups actually joined forces to defeat a trigger bill.

For Hollywood and pro-charter school activists, the actual true stories across the country about union collaboration and partnership with parents and communities don’t make for compelling storytelling. Clearly defined lines between the good guys and bad guys are always better – even if it leads to misinformation and charter school propaganda.

And don’t think that well-funded pro-charter school groups like Parent Revolution aren’t excited about “Won’t Back Down” when it arrives in September. The parent trigger campaign has suffered a few setbacks lately, but supporters are hoping the film might help turn things around.

“This is a movie about a social movement in the beginning stages,” Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution told The New York Times, “It would be naïve to think this won’t affect the movement it’s documenting.”