The Facts Behind the New Fiction about Won’t Back Down

Won’t Back Down, a film about the struggles of a single mom and a dedicated teacher to take over their failing Pittsburgh school using a parent trigger law, was released last month (see here and here for more)—on the same day the New York City teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, announced that they’re launching a million-dollar ad campaign.

Critics consider the film more Hallmark than high art, but no one disputes its important theme—especially teachers unions.

“I can’t wait with 10,000 studies about how being poor affects education. I can tell you being poor sucks and my kid can’t read,” says mother Jamie Fitzpatrick played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. But this mom’s no victim.

Evelyn Riske, a union administrator played by Holly Hunter who’s supposed to stop the parent-trigger takeover, tells Jamie that she admires her ideals, but ominously warns her daughter will “suffer” because of them.

“Have you heard about those mothers that lift one ton trucks off their babies? They’re NOTHING compared to me,” Jamie fires back. (Trailer, starting at 24 seconds; and 2.20 minutes)

UFT president Michael Mulgrew said his “back-to-school” campaign was already planned and said it had nothing to do with the film—which he dismissed as “a work of fiction.

If so, then why was the president of UFT’s parent organization, Randi Weingarten of the  American Federation of Teachers, issuing a 2,000+ word press statement against the film, Tweeting negative reviews, and taking time to appear on CNN to pan parent trigger laws?

Because Weingarten and her allies wish parent trigger laws were the works of fiction. But they’re not.

California became the first state in January 2010 to enact parent trigger legislation, which allows parents to petition to intervene and require failing schools take steps toward improving. If enough parents petition, failing schools can be converted to charter schools, staff can be replaced, or schools can be closed down.

Currently, 20 states have considered parent trigger legislation, and six states besides California have adopted them: Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, and Texas. Two separate national polls also found that 70 percent of U.S. voters support parent trigger laws. (The results were also solidly bi-partisan.)

No amount of PR is going to change the fact that in too many cases teachers union representatives treat students as afterthoughts and parents as pawns.

Within a year of California’s parent trigger law becoming effective, parents of students in Compton’s McKinley Elementary became the first group to successfully use it. In spite of repeated efforts by the Compton Unified School District to invalidate signatures and intimidate parents, on December 7, 2010, a group of 50 McKinley parents submitted their parent trigger petition with signatures from more than 61 percent of the school to Compton Unified School District officials requiring them to convert the failing district-run school to an independently-operated charter school.

Parents like the ones from Compton with children in chronically failing public schools consider parent trigger a lifeline. “Lynch mob” is what union bosses call it.

The California Federation of Teachers, for example, likened the parent trigger law to a “lynch mob provision;” while others in the education world, such as Rutgers University Graduate School of Education professor Bruce Baker, have equated parental control of public schools with “mob rule.” Back in 2010, then CFT President Marty Hittelman wrote, “What’s a lynch mob? It’s when a bunch of angry citizens get together and without any study they decide to lynch somebody. And in this case [parent trigger], they’re going to lynch their school.”

Such concern for the plight of children trapped in failing schools is heartwarming.

Ms. Weingarten has never apologized. And that’s the problem in a nutshell. Far from a fiction, this is the reality portrayed in “Won’t Back Down.”

Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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