By Caroline Grannan
Parents Across America founding member, San Francisco
With the star power of “Won’t Back Down,” this far-right-funded propaganda film — starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Holly Hunter and Viola Davis — may get some attention and reviews. For those in search of the truth, here’s a brief response to the movie’s version of events, as shown (so far) in the trailer. The movie purports to be “inspired by real events,” which would have to mean the 2010 Parent Trigger drive launched against McKinley Elementary School in Compton, Calif.
The trailer for the movie, which opens in September, shows a mother, played by Gyllenhaal, leading parents in taking over a failing school where teachers have failed to teach her daughter to read, punched her and locked her in a closet. But the storyline about the parent takeover has no resemblance to reality.
The claim that “Won’t Back Down” is inspired by an actual event refers to the Parent Trigger attempted in Compton. But that attempt failed, and it was orchestrated not by parents but by an outside organization: Parent Revolution, founded by charter school operator Steve Barr and funded by wealthy foundations.
Here’s a comparison of the film version, as shown in the trailer, to reality.
Film version: The trailer shows parents, led by the Gyllenhaal character, mobilizing valiantly to take over their school — and only much later contacting an outside organizer for extra support.
Reality: The Parent Trigger attempt at McKinley Elementary School was entirely orchestrated by outsiders – the staff of Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles organization that first proposed the legislation that created the Parent Trigger. Parent Revolution looked around the state for a school to target, chose McKinley and pre-selected a charter school operator called Celerity to take it over. Parent Revolution sent paid operatives door to door in Compton with petitions. Only then did any parents at McKinley even hear about the petition drive, according to the Los Angeles Weekly, which covered the story in detail.
Film version: The trailer shows parents determined to take over the school, against all odds.
Reality: In Compton, there was no discussion of parents taking over the school. The Parent Trigger attempt was intended from the beginning to turn the school over to the Celerity charter school operator.
Film version: The trailer shows parents uniting in support of the purportedly parent-led cause.
Reality: In Compton, after Parent Revolution turned in the petition signatures, hundreds of McKinley parents turned out to a school board meeting to oppose the Parent Trigger. Many parents protested that they had been misled into signing the petition and that they didn’t want their school to become a charter school, according to the Los Angeles Weekly.
Film version: The trailer shows a movement destined to triumphantly turn a hellhole into a successful school.
Reality: In Compton, the charter operator, Celerity, ended up opening a school near McKinley rather than taking it over. The vast majority of McKinley parents kept their children at McKinley. Only 20 percent of the McKinley families transferred their children to the new charter, according to the Los Angeles Times. “
There has since been a second Parent Trigger attempt, also led by Parent Revolution, at another California school, Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, in early 2012. That effort divided the school community into factions, and is currently mired in court battles.
None of this is to say that struggling schools are acceptable and that we shouldn’t be working to improve them. But the Parent Trigger is not an attempt to improve struggling schools; it’s an attempt to divert public money into private pockets. It’s about empowering opportunistic entrepreneurs, not parents. No star-powered propaganda vehicles can make that reality go away.