A new movie opens in theaters today that couldn’t be more timely. The school year is hitting its stride, and the teachers union in Chicago just captured the national spotlight by strong-arming that city to meet its demands—at the expense of students and taxpayers.
The time is ripe for a story like Won’t Back Down, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as mothers who can’t stand to watch their school fail any longer.
Gyllenhaal’s character is a single mom advocating for better educational opportunities for her child. Davis plays a teacher in the school who wants to improve it. This is a crucial partnership: parents and teachers working together to create a better future for students. While teachers unions have already denounced the movie, Heritage education expert Lindsey Burke has urged that criticizing unions and criticizing teachers are not one and the same.
Criticizing education unions for standing in the way of reform should not be conflated with criticizing teachers… The unions have blocked reforms such as performance pay and charter schools…have opposed alternative teacher certification that would help mid-career professionals enter the classroom, and have consistently fought the implementation of school choice options for children.
Rather, the message of Won’t Back Down is one of empowering parents. In the film, parents are attempting to “take over” the school, referring to a type of law called a parent trigger law. Seven states have a version of this law, which gives parents the power to intervene in failing schools. If a majority of parents in a school want to reform it, these laws give them options, often including converting the school into a charter school and replacing school staff.
Charter schools are typically run by non-profit community organizations, freed from the regulatory burdens on public schools. Heritage’s Jason Richwine has explained that “Charters have more leeway to experiment with different teaching methods, curriculum content, disciplinary procedures, and levels of parental involvement.” Parents have reported very high satisfaction with charter schools.
The state of public education is ripe for reform. Just look at this year’s trends:
Public school per-student spending is at an all-time high. Nationally, average per-pupil spending exceeds $11,400 this year.
SAT scores are at a 40-year low. This is only one marker of where the education system stands. Burke reminds us that “graduation rates have been stagnant since the 1970s, reading and math achievement has been virtually flat over the same time period, and American students still rank in the middle of the pack compared to their international peers.”
Teachers unions are losing members. The National Education Association expects it will lose 308,000 members in the next couple of years.
Support for school choice is at an all-time high. Forty-four percent of Americans now favor allowing taxpayer dollars spent on education to follow the student, enabling them to choose a private school to attend if they desire. As Burke reports, “School choice favorability has jumped 10 percentage points since last year, a sign that the proliferation of options such as vouchers, education savings accounts, and online learning is creating a welcome choice for families across the country.”
Viola Davis, one of the stars of Won’t Back Down, expressed the desire of so many parents recently when she told Jay Leno:
I am a parent. And as a parent, I have a child and I know that the only way she’s going to get a part of the American Dream is through education. And so if that great education is a public school, I’m going to send my kid to the public school. If that great education is a charter school, I’m going to send my kid to a charter school. If it’s a private school, I’ll send her to a private school. I think that it’s about wanting do what’s best for your kid.
Read the real-life story of the first school in the country where parents successfully used the parent trigger to convert a failing public school into a charter school.