Did you go to see Won’t Back Down this weekend? That movie loosely based on parent trigger laws where stars Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal face “a powerful and entrenched bureaucracy, [risking] everything to make a difference in the education and future of their children”? It’s ok if you didn’t, since not many other people did either – the film made only $2.7 million in it’s opening weekend. It was panned by critics as well, who called it “shamelessly manipulative“, “disingenuous,” “shrill,” “unsubtle,” and “inept and bizarre.”
Despite being a flop both critically and financially, the movie did put a brief spotlight on the fledgling parent trigger movement. What are these parent trigger laws exactly? There’s no one-size-fits-all definition since the laws vary in different states, but in effect, a parent trigger allows the parents in a school district to enact some sort of broad change if a school fails to reach a predetermined benchmark. The school can then get an all new staff, be shut down completely, or, as in most cases, the trigger laws allow for conversion into charter schools. So far parent trigger laws, in various forms, are on the books in only seven states, and the proverbial “trigger” has been pulled in only one instance so far (and that case is still mired in legal issues).
Of course parents should but involved in their children’s education, but putting the power to fundamentally change or transform a school into the hands of people who for the most part have no experience is where the trouble really lies. So it’s no surprise that the same corporate “school reform” movement that’s responsible for the push of charter schools and voucher programs also has their hand in promoting trigger laws. For example, the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is one of the organizations responsible for the spread of the law, using one of their patented ready-made legislative bills. Going back to Won’t Back Down, the movie was produced by Walden Media, which is owned by Phillip Anschutz, a conservative billionaire entrepreneur and champion of the school reform movement. Walden Media was also the company behind the charter school magnum opus Waiting for Superman.
It’s still much too early to tell if parent trigger laws will catch on and spread throughout the country, or if they’ll simply fizzle out like the movie did. What can be said for sure, however, is that the people and organizations backing parent triggers are suspect and the laws should be viewed in that context. — Ashwini Yelamanchili