By Jamie Gumbrecht and Donna Krache, CNN
(CNN) – The movie “Won’t Back Down” squeaked into the box office Top 10 last weekend, reloading debates around the country about so-called "parent trigger" laws.
Haven't heard of them? These are laws that allow parents whose kids attend failing schools to band together and "trigger" a change - usually by gathering support from more than half the parents, then changing who's in charge.
"Won't Back Down" is a dramatic retelling of how the laws might work, a Hollywood version "inspired by actual events" that stars Academy Award nominees Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal. They play moms who overcome their own challenges to change a failing Pittsburgh school, despite pushback from union leaders and teachers. Reviews are mixed - it's gained the support of education reformer Michelle Rhee and politicians like Jeb Bush, but was panned by teachers groups. Oh, and film critics: Some lauded the acting and emotion, but more knocked it for “grossly oversimplifying” the issues, for serving as a "propaganda piece" and loading its cast of big Hollywood names with a story of “Hollywood clichés.”
The film "represents everything that’s wrong with the present way we talk about school reform – and everything we need to talk about more in the future," education advocate Sam Chaltain wrote on CNN's Schools of Thought blog.
So what do these laws and situations look like off the big screen? Here's a run-down of how parent trigger laws work, and whether they could affect your schools.
How do parent trigger laws work?
State proposals and laws vary, but in essence, if a school’s students fail to reach predetermined academic benchmarks – test scores, for example – a majority of parents could decide to dismiss some or all teachers and administrators. New staff would then be brought in or students would receive vouchers to attend other schools. Some state’s trigger proposals say parents could close schools altogether, or hand over a school’s management to a private corporation or group that would re-open it as a charter school.
Where are the parent trigger laws?
Seven states have enacted some version of the laws: California, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas. In Pennsylvania, where "Won't Back Down" was based, a majority of parents and teachers must sign a petition to change a school into a charter, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. A parent trigger law was proposed in Pennsylvania last year.
As of June 2012, more than 20 states have considered parent trigger legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A trigger law narrowly failed in Florida earlier this year, and the legislature is expected to take it up again.
Why do people want them? Or not?
Proponents of parent trigger laws say that they empower parents, especially those with students in low-performing schools. Often, they say, those parents lack means to get their kids into better public or private schools, and parent-trigger laws give parents and option few currently have.
Parent trigger opponents often argue that parents aren’t in the best position to decide education policy. They maintain that it’s easy to get parent signatures on a petition, but parents might not agree about what to do with the school afterward, nor help it go through the transformation they triggered.
Others argue that parent trigger laws hand public schools to for-profit management groups that will run them as charter schools, "privatizing taxpayer buildings," Republican Florida state Sen. Nancy Detert said of that state's last trigger proposal in the Orlando Sentinel.
Who's for parent trigger laws?
In January, 2010, California became the first state to pass a parent trigger law. The force behind it was the non-profit Parent Revolution, which was first led by a charter school operator. The group promises on its website: “Organize half the parents at your children's failing school to demand change, and we will stand with you and empower you to fight for the great school your children deserve.” The group is funded by several high-profile philanthropic organizations, including the Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"Won't Back Down" was produced by Walden Media, which is owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz, who supports charter schools. Walden Media also produced the pro-charter school documentary "Waiting for Superman." (It's not all education policy movies - Walden co-produced "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," too.)
Michigan's legislature is currently considering a trigger law that could affect schools performing in the bottom 5% in the state, Mlive.com reported.
“This parent trigger gives families leverage where they do not otherwise have it by increasing pressure on districts and others in charge of failing schools," Republican state Sen. Dave Robertson said last month.
Who's against the laws?
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten wrote a letter to criticize the film after it screened at the Republican National Convention. (It's screened at the Democrats' convention, too.) She argued that the laws don't empower parents and teachers, but rather, companies that run charter schools.
"Real parent engagement means establishing meaningful ways for parents to be real partners in their children’s public education from the beginning — not just when a school is failing," she wrote.
Support isn't always along party lines. In some states, a mix of Democrats and Republicans have supported or criticized the proposals. In Florida, the Parent Teacher Association and League of Women Voters also came out against it. In New York, the Coalition for Educational Justice stands against it, too.
The union-backed nonprofit Parents Across America has been a vocal opponent, too: "Power and money are being harnessed to push a fad with no track record, in pursuit of dubious turnaround strategies, like charter schools," founder Caroline Grannan wrote in The New York Times.
Have parents taken over any schools?
In California, the first state to adopt the law, the trigger law has been applied twice.
Last year, more than 60% of parents at McKinley Elementary School in Compton, California, signed a petition demanding it be converted to a charter school because a majority of students did not meet state standards in math and reading. The school challenged the petition, saying that many signatures were not valid. A bitter court battle ensued, with the California Federation of Teachers calling the trigger law “lynch mob” legislation. In the end, the trigger wasn't enacted and the charter school operator designated to take over the school opened a campus nearby.
A majority of parents at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, California, signed a petition demanding sweeping changes to the failing school, last year, too. The decision has been stuck in courts, according to the Los Angeles Times.
"The superintendent at the time...his solution to me was only ever 'If you don't like the school or you don't like the teachers, you can change schools,'" said Doreen Diaz, a mother who led the petition drive.