What ‘Won’t Back Down’ Gets Wrong About Parental Involvement in Schools
By Tim Walker
In school districts across the nation, parents are collaborating with educators, administrators, teachers unions and other community leaders to improve public education and find sustainable solutions that put children at the center of reform.
That’s the reality, but anti-public education activists are betting the American public will rather be told a fairy tale about how teachers and, especially, their unions are standing in the way of parents who are trying to do what is best for their child’s education. That’s the basic plot of the movie “Won’t Back Down,” which opens nationwide on September 28. Bankrolled by many of the same corporate heavies who were behind the pro-charter school documentary “Waiting for Superman,” “Won’t Back Down” is fiction but it’s “inspired by true events” tagline should give pause to anyone planning to see the film.
Which is not to say that “Won’t Back Down” doesn’t score as enjoyable entertainment. It does, says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, who recently attended a screening. Van Roekel thought the movie was moving and well-acted, but nonetheless should only be seen as a Hollywood production – nothing more, nothing less.
“This is a movie — an act of fiction,” Van Roekel said. “While entertaining at times, it raises a good point: parents must be involved in their child’s education in order for that student to be successful. We couldn’t agree more, which is why NEA members everywhere are working closely with parents to increase student achievement.”
Confrontation makes for a more entertaining movie, however. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a determined mother in Pennsylvania who believes her daughter’s school is failing its students. She join forces with a sympathetic teacher (Viola Davis) and together they mount a successful grassroots campaign to face down the forces of the status quo and seize control of the school to set up a charter. If that sounds like a “parent trigger” campaign, it is – although it’s renamed in “Won’t Back Down” as the more cordial-sounding “Fail Safe Act.”
Often funded by billionaires and think tanks who support charter school expansion and for-profit approaches to education, parent trigger allows parents of children enrolled in “low performing” schools to “trigger” change by taking formal, legal control of many school operations. Parent trigger laws are currently on the books in California, Texas and Mississippi and are being considered in more than 20 other states. In June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously endorsed the policy at its annual meeting. “Won’t Back Down” romanticizes the concept, dressing up this divisive and controversial debate as a stirring, against-the-odds tale of “Mom Power.”
But is “parent trigger” really the answer? Of course not. In fact, parent groups, including the PTA, Parents Across America, Testing is Not Teaching, and Citizens for Strong Schools last April turned back a parent trigger law in Florida out of concerns it would lead to the takeover of public schools by pro-charter companies.
Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of FundEducationNow.org, a non-partisan Florida-based education advocacy group, was one of many parents who led the effort. In a newspaper opinion column, she wrote , “We do not support this corporate empowerment bill that uses a parent’s love to ‘pull the trigger’ and pass all that they hold dear into the hands of a for-profit corporation eager for every child’s per pupil funding dollars for themselves.”
In “Won’t Back Down,” the parents, led by Gyllenhaal, are stymied by the stodgy and stubborn school bureaucracy and the local teachers union, neither one interested in any sort of reform, working with parents, even less so. Every Hollywood movie needs a villain, but the overheated adversarial relationship depicted in “Won’t Back Down” doesn’t reflect what is happening on the ground in school districts across the country.
“It didn’t offend me because that’s not my union. I have never seen any union like that,” Van Roekel recently told The Hill. “It’s a make-believe union that doesn’t care. We are doing everything we can to turn around schools, to lead a profession, to make it a real profession.”
Look at Reading, Pennsylvania, where the Reading Education Association Community Committee established a Parent Engagement Committee. The union invited participation from the president of the state PTA and the regional PTA, and other education stakeholders from the community. As a result of the meetings, the committee agreed on the need to organize the parents in every school building under the PTA – a partnership between educators and parents has resulted in improved school conditions for the students.
Or how about Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake, Utah? Through collaboration between educators, their union, administrators and families, the school has transformed. Glendale is now a safe school for students to learn at and one where parents regularly volunteer.
And in Salem-Keizer, Oregon, teachers and education support professionals are so dedicated to their students’ success that they initiated participation in the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project with the help of their union. The participants of the project are trained on ways to break the “cycle of blame” for student underachievement by bringing parents and educators together in a home setting.
“Our members across the country are working with parents and administrators to make sure their schools are a place where parents are proud to send their kids and educators are proud to work in,” said Van Roekel. “Unlike how they’re portrayed in ‘Won’t Back Down,’ educators truly care. And they know that success only happens when we all come together for the students.”