“Won’t Back Down” Paints an Incomplete Picture of Parent Engagement
Natalie Chap, Dignity in Schools Campaign
The Movie Bombed, but the Show Goes On
The results are in: “Won’t Back Down” set the record for the worst performing opening weekend of all time. The film, which portrays a single mother partnering up with a teacher to transfer management of their local public school to a charter school, found a small burst of publicity in a set negative articles published by critics of charter schools and those who saw an anti-union slant to the story. While I am not a movie critic, one thing is clear to me: the movie misses the mark on the issue of school reform and meaningful parent engagement.
Many of the themes in the film are familiar to communities organizing to transform the education system in this country: parents feeling let down by their public schools, students not getting the support they need to succeed, and a school system without the resources it needs to adequately function. The movie borrows many images that grassroots organizations see every day; scenes of parents organizing to transform their schools, holding rallies, gathering signatures for a petition, and even a shot of the film’s star Maggie Gyllenhaal with a bullhorn reciting a well-worn quote amongst those in social justice movements: “Be the change you want to see in the world”.
The difference is, communities around the country are right now engaged in real grassroots organizing that calls on the education system to ensure meaningful parent participation and community engagement. While there are plenty of empowering images in the film that appear to be in line with a positive vision for education, the reality is that the system that the film advocates for would leave many of our parents shut out of decision-making on the future of our schools. The film portrays charter schools as a solution to many of the issues plaguing public schools, and the major plot device that creates much of the action in the movie is something called a “parent-trigger” law, a policy of much debate in and of itself. Under such a policy, parents would be able to gather enough signatures to trigger the transfer of management of their school from the public school system to a charter school. In the film, this is depicted as the ultimate in parent participation and empowerment, and the policy has some powerful supporters.
While there may be disagreements within education reform movements about the success of charter schools, and the role that something like a “parent-trigger” could play, what is very clear is that meaningful parent participation goes much further than a signature or a single policy. In reality, parents across the country already take on the commitment of leadership positions in their schools and districts serving on PTAs, School Leadership Teams, Education Councils, Boards of Education, and various other channels created inside and outside of school systems to bring parents into the decision-making process on issues from curriculum development to distribution of resources. These already existing channels, while important, still fall short of adequately providing opportunities for all parents to have a say in their child’s education—leading parents and other activists to demand a school system that meets the needs of their communities and views them as partners in their children’s success. It is here that you meet the real “parent-troopers” (the phrase emblazoned on the film’s stars’ t-shirts)--courageous, inspiring leaders in a movement to transform our schools. And they definitely won’t back down.
For more information on some recent events organized by parent and youth members of the Dignity in Schools Campaign, visit our Week of Action on School Pushout page.