One benefit of the Republican National Convention in Tampa was the number of events available for RNC delegates and locals lucky enough to be invited, such as the premiere of the new movie Won't Back Down. It stars actress Maggie Gyllenhaal as a mother trying to reform the elementary school where her academically challenged daughter attends. She is joined in her efforts by a teacher played by Viola Davis.
It is a provocative movie with an interesting plot line. Who can resist the story of a crusading single mom with barely a high school education taking on the local school district, the teachers' union and the State Board of Education? Who can resist a former Teacher of the Year, who is left by her husband, only to regain her mojo and becoming a proponent of education reform?
Won't Back Down combines the spirit of earlier movies like Silkwood, Erin Brockovich and Norma Rae, with feisty reformers taking on the establishment. I felt pretty good at the end of the movie. The final scene indicates that parent and teacher involvement has created newly inspired teachers and happy kids that are "learning up a storm!"
Won't Back Down is said to have been "inspired by actual events." While no school in Pittsburgh has ever had such an event, new laws in California, Texas, Ohio and Connecticut allow parents to take over failing schools from their local school districts. This is sometimes called the "Parent Trigger Law." A similar Parent Trigger Bill was narrowly defeated in Florida during the last legislative session.
Proponents of the bill give great deference to the ability of parents to know what is best for their children's education. If a school is failing, a petition could be circulated and signed by 50 percent of the parents to force the school board to relinquish control of the school to the parent group. In effect, a parent-controlled charter school is instantly created.
The film did an effective job in presenting the pros and cons of a Parent Trigger. In Won't Back Down it took 50 percent of the teachers as well as 50 percent of the parents to achieve the takeover. But one issue not explored by the movie was the sustainability of the elementary school as the years pass.
In regards to the Parent Trigger Law, the only school in America that has voted on this concept is in Adelanto, Calif. The school board in this impoverished area voted 5-0 to reject the parents' takeover of their children's school.
The Parent Trigger at first has an irresistible appeal. A recent Gallup Poll on public education issues showed that parents felt they were best suited to know the educational needs of their children. This paralleled a national mood that "local is always better." But is it?
Most parents don't have the time and financial resources to run a school. Invariably, the management of the school, over time, transitions into some type of professional management team. It is the only way the school will be sustainable.
I worry that with little or no educational training, the issues faced by all public schools today, such as ethnic diversity, religious tolerance, hiring, training, and disciplining employees, student discipline, curriculum selection, etc., can quickly tax the patience and competency of most volunteer parent leaders, who must turn to someone who will have the time and the expertise to run the school.
The education of our nation's children is a $500 billion a year enterprise. Who controls this spending will determine who and what gets all that money. Do we want elected officials and trained educational professionals, or do we want a "for profit" educational business to render the service? Who will do the best job of caring for "all" our millions of children in our schools? Which group will be the most accountable in the long run for the success or failure of their schools? These are tough questions to answer.
Fortunately, in Hillsborough County our public school system has been a pioneer in choice for parents and students. Our school district has a wide variety of magnet programs, career academies and innovative alternatives for a wide range of students. Our programs in teacher enrichment, peer review and mentoring have set a standard for our nation. The commitment of everyone involved in public education in our county makes it easy to say, "We Won't Back Down" when it comes to offering the very best education for all of our students.
B. Philip Jones Jr. is the president of the Hillsborough Education Foundation.