‘Won’t Back Down’ Film Renews Parent Trigger Debates

So-called Parent Trigger Laws, which under certain circumstances allow parents to ‘take over’ a failing public school and determine its new path, are about to get more attention due to the nationwide opening of Won’t Back Down, a story of a parent whose daughter is continuously failed by the school system teaming with a teacher to bring change to their public school.

At the moment the story told in the movie is fiction in at least one important way. There hasn’t yet been a successful attempt by parents to take over a public school — but there might be soon. There is an ongoing attempt by a group of parents to make use of California’s parent trigger law to take control of an elementary school, and just like in the movie, the full might of the local education establishment has now arrayed against them.

Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, California, which parents want to convert to a charter in time for the next school year, is playing out scenes in real-time. The school board has repeatedly tried to quash the attempt, and it looks increasingly likely that the courts who will have the final say on this issue.

California is one of seven states with laws that give parents the power to intervene in the running of a public school if it fails to measure up to their standards. According to the U.S News & World Report, as many as twenty other states are considering similar legislation. Although details of the laws differ from state to state, many share several common characteristics:

• The school must be identified by the state as low-performing, often for consecutive years.
• There must be a majority buy-in by parents of students either attending the school, or with students in lower grade levels who would likely attend the school in the future. This is typically in the form of a petition.
• A handful of intervention options are typically available, including charter school conversion, forcing the school to replace the administrators and majority of teachers, or shutting the school down completely.

It’s easy to see why parent trigger laws have found particular favor with many education reformers. After all, it gives parents not just a voice in how their schools are run, but a means do actually affect change. In addition, knowing that parents can step in if the school is failing provides additional incentive for administrators and teachers in ensuring that it succeeds.

Still, the support for those types of laws is by no means unanimous. Criticisms range from implications that there’s a lack of transparency in the takeover process and that parental interference could cause more harm than good.

There’s also a concern that for-profit charter operators could leverage parent trigger laws to bring their own charters into the school district.

“It’s an illusion that sounds good on paper, even if it was created in sincerity,” Caroline Grannan, a public school parent in San Francisco, told USA Today. Grannan is one of the founders of Parents Across America, a nonprofit group backed by teachers unions that works to connect parents and activists across the country.