Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What ‘Won’t Back Down’ Gets Wrong About Parental Involvement in Schools

September 20, 2012 by twalker  
Filed under Featured News, Top Stories


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.

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

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, 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.”


10 Responses to “What ‘Won’t Back Down’ Gets Wrong About Parental Involvement in Schools”
  1. Stephen says:

    I feel your tacit support of this movie is misplaced. Not condemning this movie as another propoganda piece to try to sway public opinion against public education is tacitly condoning this type of subterfuge. Not only that, but to see this movie is to sink money into the very system bent on substituting education for profit. I would expect NEA to take a harder line against this agitprop.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 2

  2. monique meinert says:

    Well, why doesn’t AEA or “pro teachers” directors/actors come up with a movie that generates what teachers REALLY go through and how they need support?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  3. Larry C says:

    What this movie speaks to first and foremost is making money. Does anyone really think educators have any input into this? As we have seen, movie makers will show anything that makes a buck or meets their agenda. Keep them out of this. What it will do is inflame emotions against teachers and other educators, vilifying them for all the problems when the real problem is you, Mr. and Mrs. parent. You aren’t living up to your responsibility; your little darling is not getting social training at home and is bringing his/her “I’m number one!” and “kick ass” attitude to school. If you want better schools, then make them better. They’re yours…quit passing the buck and blaming everyone else. And don’t dump your problems into private schools expecting a different outcome; you’ll only foul them as well
    If you’ve followed school reform movements very long, you have seen the frustration with public schools grow. What parents seem to miss is the fact they have already taken over the schools long ago. That’s why they’re called public schools. What they are not doing is demanding accountability from elected officials that continually impose nonsensical requirements on professional educators for political reasons. If parents want to “take back the schools”, then start by demanding the elected officials at every level start listening…then doing. If you had a serious medical condition, would you tolerate a politician telling the doctor how to treat you? The doctor is trained to practice medicine. Teachers are trained to practice education. Politicians…well, who knows what they’re trained for, but teachers, doctors, society in general does not work for the elected; they work for us. Teachers and education professionals have been telling elected officials what the schools need, but what they get is a politically correct response designed only to get reelected.
    Parents need to understand they are abdicating the right for their children to have a great education in a public school; what they and others before them paid for. I personally have no problem with charter schools or any other private schools. For those who wish to go and can afford it, then that option is available. But don’t expect a different outcome. You’re simply moving the problem from one place to another and proposing to drain the resources from public schools in the process. You need to prepare your children for school. When did parents get the idea the teacher had to put up with physical violence or abusive behavior by children? Do we tolerate adults who physically assault their employer in the private sector? Certainly not. They are arrested, tried and sentenced if guilty. Parents, don’t say this isn’t your child. When you child’s teacher tell you there is a problem, listen. Don’t deny it and then try to blame the teacher. It’s your kid, take the responsibility. Moving the resources from public to private doesn’t fix the problem and is a serious error and a heinous offense against every American child. As is always the case, the poor, the minorities, those with the least wherewithal will suffer first, most and longest. Philanthropists, elected officials and bureaucrats in general should be ashamed for betraying the public school system. They wanted the control; they got it…now fix the problem. Platitudes and campaign promises don’t work…listen to the people who are the trained professionals. They will tell you what is needed. “Race to the Top” and other such foolish attempts do nothing but show the immaturity and incompetence of the leadership of the U.S. Department of Education.
    A few thoughts on reform; national core curriculum (I’m hesitant to use the word national because that has connotations of the Feds involved), smaller classes, getting social issues out of the classroom and into the venue where it should be; those are just a few ideas. It is not the teacher’s job to deal with a child’s social issues. Speaking of social issues, get the government to put money into before and after school day care, breakfast and lunch programs, medical care; all of these are needed and should be implemented, but not with teacher involvement. There plate is full enough. Require District and State Superintendents to provide standard course objectives instead of leaving it up to individual teachers to figure out what the (missing) standard is.
    All of this and more can be done; it will not be easy because there are so many well intentioned, competing agendas that do not work. America is a diverse country; one size does not fit all from coast to coast. But there can be core elements that do fit so any American child will be competitive in science, technology, engineering and mathematics with people from other countries. And don’t forget the liberal arts. You can have all the STEM there is, but if the child does not think critically, reason, write, and read critically, their skills will be subordinated to those from other countries who have the complete package.
    The sooner parents quit blaming teachers for the problems and start holding those accountable who really are the cause, the sooner they will get their schools back and the education their children need and deserve. Until that happens, it all just a bunch of noise that will not end well.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  4. Tim Brinker says:

    I have always felt strongly about all issues and institutions, that you do not quit, pull out, and start new, but you work within the system yto make improvements-make it work. The same goes for home-schooling and charter schools.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  5. Reuben says:

    I have recently been ‘blacklisted’ because I questioned where particular grant funding was going. The 21st Century Grant. I attempted to collaborate and build a communication within a small school district; and it seems that certain individuals do not want the input from teachers or parents. Now he feels that his reputation with the state has been damaged, because I inquired about the funding. So now, he has made it sure that I am never hired here in this district.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0


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