Won't Back Down

In January 2010, California became the first state to offer parents another path when it passed the Parent Empowerment Act, aka “parent trigger” law. This measure allows parents to force turnaround efforts at a school, similar to those framed by the federal School Improvement Grant program, including reconstitution as a charter and replacement of half the staff. Since then, six other states have adopted “trigger” legislation (including Ohio, which passed a pilot program for Columbus City Schools in 2011). Another twenty-plus have considered (or are currently considering) similar legislation. This form of parent empowerment has merit, even if it hasn’t actually happened yet in real places. Indeed, no real school has successfully implemented a parent trigger—for school systems, teacher groups, and other establishment forces have myriad means available to block it.

For a preview of how it might really happen, we turn to Hollywood: This film—produced (and presumably subsidized) by Philip Anschutz’s Walden Media and starring Viola Davis (The Help, Doubt) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart)—chronicles the efforts of two moms (one of them also a teacher) as they struggle to reconstitute their horrific Pittsburgh elementary school under the state's hypothetical "Fail Safe Act." (No, Pennsylvania hasn’t passed a parent-trigger law yet.)

All the essential—and predictable—characters are featured: The apathetic and/or change-averse school-board members; the conniving teacher-union head; the vindictive and heinous principal; the dedicated teachers—and also those more worried about pension accrual (or job retention) than student achievement. Maybe it’s a little formulaic. But maybe it needs to be if viewers are successfully to imagine something that hasn’t yet happened in the real world.

How do we keep fiction from permanently being truer than reality?

To the filmmakers’ credit, the politics and charged emotions on display within and among these groups feel plenty real. While parent-trigger legislation is the muse of Won’t Back Down, issues of choice, unions, governance, curricular design, instructional effectiveness, and school (and individual) accountability are also present. A couple of kids have disabilities. Parents don’t have much money—and are at their wits’ ends to get their children a decent education in a gritty neighborhood. Your eyes may well moisten as you watch.

Showcasing such issues in a general-distribution movie (coming tomorrow to a theater near you) is apt to widen the fan base for parent-trigger legislation and perhaps other needed reforms. That’s undeniably a good thing to do. The question then becomes: How do we keep fiction from permanently being truer than reality?

SOURCE: Daniel Barz, Won’t Back Down (Walden Media, September 28, 2012).

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