‘Won’t Back Down’: The Reality Behind the Hollywood Story

Exclusive op-ed: Ben Austin of Parent Revolution sounds off about parent trigger laws and the ongoing battle for Desert Trails Elementary.

Parents of Desert Trails Elementary students band together to take over their child's failing school. (Photo c/o Parent Revolution)

The new movie Won’t Back Down tells the story of a parent and teacher uniting to transform their children’s failing school.

It is a story parents and kids at Desert Trails Elementary know all too well.

Desert Trails is, by any measurement, a failing school. It is located 80 miles north of Los Angeles. It ranks in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide. In the 2010-2011 school year, two-thirds of the children failed the state reading exam. Nearly 80 percent failed the science exam. The school hasn’t met state standards for over six years. 

More: Parent Trigger Laws: Our Mayors Back Them, Do You?

Appalled by this pattern of abject failure, the parents reached out to Parent Revolution, the nonprofit that conceived of California’s groundbreaking “Parent Trigger” law.  Parent Trigger empowers parents to transform failing schools through community organizing. The parents at Desert Trails banded together, forming the Desert Trails Parent Union (DTPU). In 2011, the DTPU launched a seven-month organizing campaign, ultimately winning support from parents representing 70 percent of the children at the school for a first-ever parent-led school turnaround.

What happened next has Won’t Back Down looking like a G-rated version of reality.

Desert Trails parents met with teachers, the teachers’ union, the principal, and the deputy superintendent to develop a list of objectives for school improvement. The key was one idea: all decisions, from staffing to budget to the curriculum, be driven by the best interests of their children.

Their initial proposal was a moderate amendment to the teachers’ union contract. The proposal would have maintained Desert Trails as a unionized, district-run school, helping ensure a good teacher in each classroom. The district rejected it.

Parents then proposed a “Partnership School”—a school where parents, district leadership, and the teachers’ union share power, working together to transform the school. The district rejected it.

What happened next has Won’t Back Down looking like a G-rated version of reality. 

A campaign of lies and intimidation was launched against parents who signed the petition. Parents were told if they didn’t “rescind” their Parent Trigger petition signature, their school would get shut down immediately. The DTPU even caught opponents forging documents to make it seem like parents opposed change.

With the help of pro bono attorneys, the DTPU took the case to court. They laid out the evidence of fraud, forgery, and intimidation before a Superior Court judge. This past July, these brave parents won a monumental victory.  The judge ordered the district to validate the parents’ petition, giving the parents the right to select a new nonprofit charter school to run Desert Trails.

Instead of complying with the court order, the district voted to violate the court order. One school board member said, “If I am found in contempt of court, I brought my own handcuffs, take me away now. I don’t care anymore.”

The parents are heading back into court this month to compel the district to comply with the court order, while simultaneously considering excellent proposals from two nonprofit charter school operators to turn around Desert Trails next year.

Change is never easy. It is time, however, to focus on what’s important: the right of every child to have access to a great public education.

Meanwhile, their children face another year trapped in a failing school. The top leadership of the district—including the superintendent and two deputy superintendentshas resigned in the past few months. The district is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, borrowing from reserves just to pay its monthly bills, while spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on high-priced lawyers defending an indefensible status quo. 

The parents of Desert Trails are the gripping reality behind Won’t Back Down.

Since the Parent Trigger law was passed in California, it has passed in three other states and been introduced in a dozen more. It’s been endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. A recent national Gallup Poll found 70 percent of Americans and 76 percent of public school parents support Parent Trigger.

Change is never easy. It is time, however, to focus on what’s important: the right of every child to have access to a great public education, and the responsibility of every educator to make every decision about our schools rooted in what’s best for the interests of children, not powerful adults.

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