Can life, in fact, imitate art? Organizers leading a controversial new school reform movement are doing their darndest to try. Starting this week, the education reform group Parent Revolution kicked off a national 32-city tour with “Won’t Back Down,” the slick new Hollywood movie featuring the hot-button fight around a policy called the parent trigger. Parent Revolution wants to inspire parents to do what Oscar-caliber actresses Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis do in the film: Take over their failing schools. Critics—including teachers’ unions and many of public schools’ staunches defenders—warn that real life educating isn’t that simple.
Parent Revolution’s idea is to host the film, which traces a fictionalized community’s fight to overhaul a struggling public school, and win over crowds. Screenings are free and accompanied by post-screening discussions with activists who discuss the film’s themes and make an ask of the audience: Sign up to join the movement or stick around to learn more. The first stop: Buffalo, N.Y., where parents and the school reform organization Buffalo ReformED have been organizing to win the parent trigger for several years.
The parent trigger is a policy, promoted by the Parent Revolution movement, that allows parents whose kids are in public schools that have been deemed to be failing to demand an overhaul of the campus if more than 50 percent of parents sign a petition calling for change. In 2010, California became the first state to pass a parent trigger law, but since then a growing number of states have followed. In 2011, lawmakers weighed the idea in 22 states. In Buffalo, folks are gearing up for the next state legislative session, when they hope to introduce the parent trigger again.
Activists supportive of the parent trigger called the Buffalo screening a success. “I heard a lot of clapping in the crowds, and people were crying and laughing especially at the end,” said Hannya Boulos, executive director of Buffalo ReformED, which is organizing to pass a parent trigger law in New York.
“We’re using the movie as a chance to re-motivate and organize folks,” said April Popescu, regional advocacy director for Parent Revolution. She flew out from Los Angeles to attend the Buffalo screening, and someone from Parent Revolution will travel with the film to each of its showings. The film is a key part of Parent Revolution’s organizing strategy to get local communities to support not just the law, but the possibility of pulling the trigger in their own communities. “Our goal is to inspire. Our goal is not to spark a debate or create an issue or a fight,” Popescu said.
And yet, debate and acrimony is seemingly all that trails the parent trigger. In California, where the policy has been implemented twice, both efforts have landed communities in court, with school districts and parent activists fighting against efforts to bring in charter schools to replace neighborhood schools.
Like just about everything in the education reform world, it’s a controversial tactic with clear lines of support and opposition. The mainstream and bipartisan education reform movement, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have embraced the idea. While the teachers unions and progressive public school defenders have been deeply skeptical, arguing that it only creates the illusion of parental empowerment while fast-tracking the path for replacing public schools with private and charter schools.
And it wasn’t all supporters in the Buffalo theater this week, attendees report. Ina Downing, an activist with Alliance for Quality Education, a statewide educational equity organization, headed to the screening to hand out fliers about the policy and warn audience members about the politics behind the film. “I just want to share the facts with parents,” Downing said, whose primary organizing issue is a campaign to address the racially disparate school discipline rates in Buffalo and around New York State.
“I know all about poor performing schools,” Downing said. With 10 grandchildren and five godchildren in Buffalo city schools, she says she’s well-aware of the levels of dysfunction there. “But my concern is that parents know the facts. I know what the parent trigger promises, but it’s still fed by corporations.”
That’s something of an overstatement, but the web of connections to corporate interests is clear. The parent trigger as a policy has been backed by conservatives and an increasing number of liberals whose education reform ideology is based in market principles and a belief that increasing competition and punitive accountability measures will improve poor performing schools. The Hollywood version of the policy is no different. Walden Media, which produced the film, is owned by Philip Anschutz, who has also supported ALEC, the conservative legislative advocacy group that adopted the parent trigger in its model policy lineup. And the film’s distributor is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who has made moves into the $500 billion U.S. public education sector with his News Corp.
Samuel Radford, president of Buffalo Schools’ District Parent Coordinating Council, isn’t bothered in the slightest by these connections. “My issue is not to judge who comes to help,” he said. “That’s like me needing a life raft thrown to me, and me concerned about which boat it comes from? I don’t get that thinking. I’m willing to listen to anybody that’s willing to take the time, attention and resources to turn around failing schools.”
Radford, who heads a parent organization which has coalesced around the parent trigger as its main legislative campaign, sat on the post-film panel and did his part to encourage folks to get involved with their upcoming legislative fight. Seven of his kids have gone through Buffalo city schools, and he’s got three more boys scattered throughout the district.
Neither is he concerned about the lack of evidence-based research behind the parent trigger and the turnaround models it’d lead to. The loudest voices opposing the parent trigger are teachers unions whom Radford believes have only their self-interests at heart. Criticisms of the parent trigger sound too much like excuses for failure to him. “Forty-four of 58 Buffalo city schools are in the bottom 10 percent of New York state,” he said.
But he’s not alone in his frustrations with Buffalo schools. “I’ve seen children pushed through just because,” said Downing, “and I’ve dealt with a teacher that was treating my children unfair.” Still, she opposes a policy that would attempt to wipe the slate of a school clean. After parents pull the metaphorical trigger on their kids’ schools, policies generally allow parents to choose from one of a list of drastic turnaround options, which include shutting the school down entirely; replacing the staff and administrators; or bringing in an outside charter school operator to run the school. But there is no such thing as wiping the slate clean with schools, Downing says. “You have to look for solutions in schools, not punish students and teachers. Giving up and starting new, that’s like throwing salt on an open wound… It’s going to burn.”
During its opening weekend, “Won’t Back Down,” incidentally, had the worst opening in box office history for films released in over 2,500 theaters. Box office analysts took gleeful jabs at the film’s numbers, noting that 20th Century Fox could easily send the film into the world with little at stake because “Won’t Back Down” was financed by Walden Media, the publishing and production company behind the pro-charter education film “Waiting for Superman.” But the film, so poorly received by the wider U.S. moviegoing crowds, may not have been meant for them anyway. This week Parent Revolution hosted “Won’t Back Down” screenings in Fort Wayne, Ind.; Jackson, Miss.; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Baton Rouge, La.