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No Hollywood Ending Yet for this Real Life Parent Trigger Saga

Ben Austin
Executive Director, Parent Revolution

You may have heard of a new motion picture to be released nationwide on Friday, September 28th that tells the dramatic story of a community that unites to fix a failing school. “Won’t Back Down,” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis and Holly Hunter, and produced by Walden Media, was inspired by the real-life efforts of a group of parents in California to take over their children’s struggling elementary school.

Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif., ranked in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide and was the lowest ranked school in its district. Last year, two-thirds of the children failed the state reading exam. Nearly 80 percent failed the science exam. The school had not met state standards for six years.  

Using a bill passed in 2010 known as the Parent Trigger law, the parents of Desert Trails Elementary School worked together to organize, unionize and advocate for change in their school. Today, more than 20 states, including Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, have passed or are considering parent empowerment laws and the development of Parents’ Union chapters to demand similar reforms.

A number of critics have spoken out against the film, deriding it as fiction. But, as the parents of Desert Trails can attest, the movie is G-rated compared to what they faced in real life.

Parents like Cynthia Ramirez, whose daughter has attended Desert Trails Elementary for the past three years. When she learned that the school was ranked lowest in the district and that a majority of students were failing in reading, math and science, Cynthia did all the things you would expect an engaged parent to do. She got involved. She volunteered at the school and joined the PTA. She met with teachers and other parents. After three years of trying to help her daughter achieve the education she deserved, she had run out of options. That’s when another PTA parent Doreen Diaz spoke to her about forming a Parents’ Union.

Over the next nine months, Doreen and Cynthia met with other parents and community leaders to voice their concerns. They gathered petition signatures from more than 70 percent of the school’s parents.  When they presented the petition to the school board, along with a proposed moderate amendment to the teachers’ union contract, they were first ignored and then vilified. A campaign of distortion and intimidation was launched that included threats of deportation and expulsion of children of those who signed the petition.

The school board even filed suit to deny the parents’ petition, a case that the judge recently ruled on in favor of the parents, the first time the Parent Trigger law has been tested in court.

The late Senator Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” So let’s examine the facts in this case:

  • Parent trigger laws are not “anti-union.” In fact, it’s ironic that the loudest critics of the parent empowerment movement are the teachers’ unions, when after all, these parents are fighting for the same right to unionize that teachers enjoy. The one difference:  parents are not subject to the same pressures that apply to school boards and district bureaucracies and teachers’ unions. Their one and only agenda is to support their kids.
  • There is no charter school agenda behind parent empowerment. Each community will determine ultimately the reforms that are right for them. The only agenda is a “kids-first” agenda – one in which the interests of our children are not trumped by the interests of adults.
  • Parent trigger laws are not the brainchild of the right-wing. They have been supported and furthered with support from a bipartisan group of education policy leaders, including winning unanimous support from a bipartisan meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Other prominent proponents include Gloria Romano, state director of Democrats for Education Reform, Representative George Miller, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (a top funder of teachers’ unions).

If every story had a Hollywood ending, I would be writing to say that the parents of Desert Trails are getting ready to send their kids to an improved school. But sadly that is not the case. The school board’s tactics of deny and delay have left the school in limbo. The parents continue to solicit bids for a non-profit charter school operator, while the school board continues to stonewall.

Despite the divide in Adelanto, it is critical to remember that parents and teachers have a lot in common when it comes to a kids-first agenda. We agree it’s good for teachers to be paid more money, and we agree we ultimately need to raise taxes to do it. We agree it’s good for kids if educators are respected, empowered and not micro-managed by a bureaucrat who has never met their students or set foot in their classroom. We also agree it’s good for kids if educators are unionized and have basic workplace protections. In fact, there is no doubt that everyone on all sides of this issue are good people who care about kids and the future of public education in America.

Now it’s time to not let politics stand in the way of good policy and hold ourselves accountable to making every single decision as if that decision would directly impact our own children.

That’s the premise behind parent empowerment and “Won’t Back Down.”

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