Oct. 20, 2014

Austin: Art Imitates Life on School Reform

A new movie called "Won't Back Down," starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as a mom and teacher who unite to take over their children's failing school, has some teachers union leaders up in arms.

The movie is "inspired by real events" - passage of the first Parent Trigger law in 2010. Under the law, if more than half of the parents at a systemically failing school sign a petition, they can force a local district to enact one of several reforms that might include replacing the school staff, extending the school day and revising the curriculum, closing the school or converting the school into a non-profit charter school.

The parents of a failing elementary school in the middle of the Mojave Desert - Desert Trails Elementary School - were the first to successfully win a Parent Trigger campaign. About 18 months ago, these parents reached out to Parent Revolution and we helped them organize and form a parents union.

The Desert Trails Parent Union went door-to-door and eventually got signatures from 70 percent of the school's parents. They proposed a number of reforms that were designed to work with the existing teachers and school board, but were rejected at every turn.

Then the teachers union struck back. Teachers and union activists descended upon the city of Adelanto to mount a calculated campaign aimed at pressuring parents to withdraw their signatures.

According to an editorial last March in the Wall Street Journal: "In the Desert Trails parking lot and at front doors across Adelanto, strangers confronted parents and spread untruths about the trigger drive: that it would force the immediate closure of Desert Trails, for example, or result in the firing of all teachers, or cause certain children to be expelled. Some parents heard the trigger drive was an embezzlement scheme. Others had their immigration status questioned. ... At least three Adelanto parents have also signed affidavits swearing that the rescission documents bearing their signatures were doctored before being delivered (in photocopied form) to the district."

With the help of pro bono attorneys, the parents of Desert Trails took the school district to court and, in an historic victory, the judge ruled on behalf of the parents, empowering them for the first time in American history to select a new non-profit charter operator to run their school.

Instead of working with the parents to improve their failing schools, teachers unions have responded to the Parent Trigger movement with conspiracy theories about a right-wing assault on the public education system. As the inventor of the Parent Trigger and a veteran of the Clinton White House and five Democratic presidential campaigns, I can testify to the fact that their conspiracy theories are not moored to planet Earth.

We launched Parent Revolution around the inauguration of President Barack Obama because we believed his inauguration represented an historic proof-point for community organizing leading to transformative change. Within a year of his assuming office, we passed Parent Trigger into law for every parent in California as a direct result of Obama's Race to the Top initiative.

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