“This whole system is broken,” says the heartbroken single mother Jamie Fitzpatrick portrayed by actress Maggie Gyllenhall in the film “Won’t Back Down.”
Fitzpatrick, who works two jobs, is referring to the public school system in Pittsburgh, Pa., depicted as a detested place where her dyslexic daughter Malia is stuck because she can’t afford private schooling. Gyllenhall’s character eventually teams up with one of Malia’s teachers played by Viola Davis — also frustrated with the system — who together rally around a so-called “parent-trigger” law and start a movement to literally takeover their failing school.
Not surprisingly, they succeed. Not even a recalcitrant school board can get in the way.
Following the Nashville’s premier of “Won’t Back Down” Monday evening — an event Mayor Karl Dean kicked off with opening remarks — a panel discussion of parents, a charter board member and a former union head pointed to “parent engagement” as the movie’s chief takeaway: Parents and teachers working together to hold stakeholders accountable.
But comments Monday from an official from Parent Revolution — an education group that pushes and promotes parent-trigger law legislation nationwide — revealed what appears to be another premise of the film: spread the word and explain the application of little-known parent-trigger laws, which allow parents in certain states to gather petition signatures to overhaul operations at their schools.
“That story that you guys just saw up on that screen — we’ve lived it, it’s happened.” Ryan Donohue, deputy national advocacy director of Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution, told the Nashville audience, alluding to the group’s work in California, home to the nation’s first parent-trigger law. “That is real. And you can do the same thing in your own communities.
“We want to make this a movement, and the only way we can do that is if we have all of your help,” he added.
“Won’t Back Down,” which doesn’t officially hit the theaters until Sept. 28, came to Nashville Monday as part of a series of sneak-peek screenings in 17 cities across the country. The organizations StudentsFirst, led by former Washington, D.C., chancellor Michelle Rhee, and the Tennessee Charter Schools Association sponsored the event. Screenings began at the recent Republican and Democratic national conventions.
Critics will call “Won’t Back Down” propaganda in its purest form. And to their point, the film advances narratives that education reformers have voiced for years.
The movie — which oversimplifies the trigger process — features a tenured teacher who is mean, lazy and uninterested in instructing. The film characterizes teachers’ unions as out-of-touch organizations clinging to the wrong priorities, with its bosses even willing to turn to underhanded tactics to get their way. In the story of “Won’t Back Down,” school districts and central administrative offices are bureaucratic messes where it’s impossible to get anything done.
On the flipside, the film’s all-star teacher is a Teach For America alum. The best school in the city is a publicly financed, privately led charter school with a long waiting list.
Stakeholders in attendance at the packed theater Monday included parents and students from a local charter school, Teach For America supporters, education lobbyists, and the communications director of the Tennessee Department of Education.
Dean, a charter school supporter, called the event “less about the specifics of a parent-trigger law and more about engaging in meaningful discussion about our schools and how we can improve them working together as a community.”
But Monday’s “Won’t Back Down” screening comes as some West Nashville parents are informally exploring the execution of Tennessee’s version of a parent-trigger law. The state laws allows for the conversion of an existing public school to an outside charter organization if parents of 60 percent of children enrolled at the school or 60 percent of the school’s teachers agree to the move by signing a petition.
There’s one key catch, however, in Tennessee’s law that weakens the trigger: local charter authorizers — the Metro school board, for example — must approve the conversion to complete the takeover. Parents can’t appeal the decision to the state.
Tennessee could be ripe for a more aggressive parent-trigger legislative push, however.
Donohue, the Parent Revolution official, told reporters Monday that his group hopes there’s interest in “passing a true parent-trigger law in Tennessee” during the state’s next legislative session.
He said a “true” trigger law contains several components that aren’t part of Tennessee’s statute: a lower 50 percent petition threshold; an appeals process with the state; multiple trigger options besides charter conversions such as firing principals; and most importantly, the local school board would be required to act according to the wishes of the parents.
“The law here in Tennessee doesn’t actually give parents the true voice they actually deserve,” Donohue said. “It’s ultimately decided by the school board, which is not what it should be. It should be the parents’ voice.
“We’re certainly considering Tennessee,” he said. “We’d love to get involved here. But again, ultimately, it’s a question of the parents. If the parents want us to get involved and get active, we certainly will.”