Won’t Back Down is a 2012 drama starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as a single mom to a dyslexic daughter, Viola Davis as a teacher at a failing inner-city elementary school and Holly Hunter as a teacher’s union representative. In the movie, Gyllenhaal’s and Davis’s characters use a fail-safe law to take over the underperforming school. The film plays out in typical Hollywood fashion with plucky heroines, underhanded villains and heartwarming scenes. The response to the film has been intense and varied as can be seen by its reviews: “A Political Football in the Classroom,” “‘Won’t Back Down’ doesn’t let up on unions” and “New movie ‘Won’t Back Down’ makes the case for education reform.” This film has received so much attention because it is loosely based on actual laws called parent trigger laws.
California, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas have versions of parent trigger laws, which allow parents to trigger a change in unsuccessful schools. The laws vary from state to state, and parents have a variety of intervention options, including replacing faculty and staff, shutting down the school or converting to a charter school. Many states require that a majority of parents with children in the school sign a petition. Some states also require a local public hearing or that the state education agency approve the chosen intervention. The local school board has different options depending on the state as well; some are required to implement the intervention while others have the option to propose a different course of action.
Those who advocate the laws feel that they give power to parents of children in failing schools. Typically, these parents have no other schooling options for their children. Proponents of the laws also feel that the current process for improving school systems is too slow and doesn’t have the best interest of the students at its core.
Opponents of the law feel the existing policies for underperforming schools are sufficient. They also assert that there’s no research to verify claims that these interventions will improve the performance of schools. Those who do not approve of the laws believe in opportunities for parents, community members and teachers to work together to improve schools, but that trigger laws are not the answer. Many teachers unions are also opposed to them, as the unions feel parent trigger laws can lead to privatizing education.
In California, there have been two schools where parents have attempted to trigger a change. The first was at McKinley Elementary in Compton, California, where parents petitioned for the failing school be turned into a charter school. The school board unanimously rejected the effort for a variety of reasons. The second was at Desert Trails Elementary, an underperforming school in Adelanto, California. After a nearly two-year battle, the school district approved a charter school operator. With this success, we are likely to see more cases of parents using these trigger laws in an attempt to improve their children’s education. One hopes no matter what the outcome of these cases that parents and teachers can work together to give students the best education possible.