What are 'parent trigger' laws?
Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal star in the pro "parent trigger" film "Won't Back Down."
October 2nd, 2012
01:06 PM ET

What are 'parent trigger' laws?

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.

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My View: The curious paradox of 'Won't Back Down'
Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal star in "Won't Back Down."
September 27th, 2012
01:50 PM ET

My View: The curious paradox of 'Won't Back Down'

Courtesy Becky HaleBy Sam Chaltain, Special to CNN

Editor's Note: Sam Chaltain is a Washington-based writer and education advocate. He can be found on Twitter at @samchaltain.

(CNN) - "Won’t Back Down," the new Hollywood film about two mothers determined to take over their children's failing inner city school, 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.

The film itself feels like Soviet-era propaganda. No characters are well-developed; they’re all two-dimensional mouthpieces for different constituency groups’ pet programs and policy proposals. Even when the filmmakers try to instill a bit of complexity – such as the Teach for America alum who works in a neighborhood school and was raised in a family with deep union ties – the strings of the puppeteer are too easily visible for anyone interested in the story more than the sound bite.

It’s a lousy movie, plain and simple.

"Won’t Back Down" is also lousy at orienting viewers to the complexity of our current efforts to improve public education. School choice is presented as a panacea in and of itself, and the process of turning a struggling school into a successful one seems to involve little more than a few all-nighters, some dogged persistence and an unwavering belief in the rightness of one’s cause. If viewers took this film at its word, they might think that all we’d need to do to transform public education is scream “Power to the People” and presto! No more failing schools.

Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. And yet, even though the film’s treatment of school reform is misleadingly simplistic, it would be equally misleading to dismiss it altogether. In fact, the core issues it raises – the importance of parental engagement, the injustice of American education and the illogic of a sclerotic system of schools that has outgrown its Industrial-era mission – are exactly the sorts of issues we need to explore more deeply as a nation.
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Filed under: Parent trigger • Parents • Sam Chaltain • School choice • Teachers • Voices • Won't Back Down