Policy Watch Investigates

‘Parent Trigger’ law gets first screening in Charlotte

Several hundred people at this Democratic National Convention packed into a movie theater in uptown Charlotte Monday afternoon, ready to hear one of the newest proposals of how to save America’s failing schools.

But instead of educational professionals or researchers talking about the best path forward, guidance came from a fictional Hollywood movie about a determined single mother and a frustrated teacher who joined forces to takeover a troubled public school that administrators had given up on.

The feel-good drama “Won’t Back Down,” is opening to national audiences Sept. 28 and stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Oscar-nominee Viola Davis in a David vs. Goliath quest that pits the heroines against unreasonable school administers and teachers’ unions. The movie was bankrolled by Walden Media, the entertainment company that put out the 2010 charter school documentary “Waiting for Superman” and owned by conservative billionaire PhillipAnshutz.

Pre-release screenings of the movie were brought to both national political conventions this year by StudentsFirst, a school-choice group started in December 2010 by former Washington, D.C. schools superintendent Michelle Rhee.

In Tampa, Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s group Foundation for Excellence in Education partnered with StudentsFirst for the screening while Democrats for Education Reform did the same in Charlotte.

Billed as being “inspired by actual events,” the movie offers an emotional and fictional visualization of a parent trigger law that allows the takeover of a public school if enough parents sign petitions saying they’re dissatisfied.

The lead character, played by Gyllenhaal, is a working-class single mom that finds her dyslexic daughter in the classroom of a checked-out teacher more interested in tapping away on her cell phone than teaching students.

That’s enough to propel Gyllenhaal to launch a campaign, along with a dissatisfied teacher played by Davis, to demand a school that puts kids first and can shed the lackluster teachers that the unions had kept in classrooms. Enemies come in the way of school administration and the local teachers’ unions afraid of the change that Gyllenhaal and Davis’ characters want.

The movie’s intentions go beyond entertaining audiences, and will likely spark a national discussion of parent trigger laws, despite not having a school in the country outside of the fictitious one in the Hollywood film that’s been changed by a parent trigger policy.

Attempts by parents in California, where the first parent trigger law was passed in 2010, have been caught up in legal fights and no school has actually been transformed under the parent trigger. Texas, Mississippi and Connecticut recently passed their own versions of parent trigger legislation and legislatures in dozen more states will consider it next year.

It could also be destined for North Carolina.

Before the screening, Rhee, the head of StudentsFirst, talked with Eddie Goodall, a former state senator who heads the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association, about potentially pushing for a parent trigger effort in North Carolina, he said.

They’re taking a look at us,” Goodall said.

The momentum for parent triggers is growing, with a unanimous endorsement of parent triggers coming this year from the U.S. Conference of Mayors and pre-release screenings of the movie at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

It’s also found critics, and opponents, in more traditional backers of public education, who sense the parent trigger movement doesn’t talk about real solutions and stands to benefit charter school operators who would come in once the parent trigger is pulled.

Pam Grundy, a Charlotte parent and co-founder of the grassroots group Parents Across America, was outside Monday’s screening to protest the movie. She’s less bothered by the movie itself than by the groups that she sees are trying to push public policies through the film screen.

This is one more education reform that doesn’t work and is going to take time, energy and attention away from actually fixing schools,” Grundy said. “None of those things have any track records of actually making schools better for kids that are there.”

At a panel discussion held after Monday’s screening in Charlotte, Rhee said public schools aren’t suffering for a lack of funding but from a lack of vision.

It does not make sense to pour more money into a broken system,” Rhee said at a panel discussion held after the Charlotte screening. “We’re no longer going to hand money out.”

But Grundy, the Charlotte parent, disagrees with Rhee and thinks there needs to be more discussion about proven ways of making existing schools better.

We really want to move forward with doing things like having less testing, treating teachers with respect and dealing with the poverty that some children find themselves in,” she said.

Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska will be in Charlotte this week, covering issues related to the Democratic National Convention. You can follow her on Twitter at @SarahOvaska or by email, sarah@ncpolicywatch.com.

To watch the official trailer for the movie, click below:

“Won’t Back Down” movie poster image copyright: Walden Media.