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MinnPost’s education reporting is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

Film ‘Won’t Back Down’ sure to increase debate over ‘parent trigger’ school laws

Such laws empower fed-up communities to close failing schools or convert them into charters. Efforts to make Minnesota the eighth “parent trigger” state failed last session.

Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal

In the forthcoming movie “Won’t Back Down,” Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a working-class single mother outraged by conditions at her daughter’s Pittsburgh elementary school.

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She is shown in the trailer sprinting down a hallway, freeing the girl from a janitor’s closet to which a teacher banished her and promising, “I’m going to get you out of there.”

As over-produced music swells, the protagonist goes one better: With the help of Oscar nominee Viola Davis, cast here in the role of a righteous educator willing to risk the ire of her colleagues in order to win her pupils a decent education, she takes over the failing, inner-city school.

Their foe: A villainous teachers’ union rep, played by Holly Hunter. The big-budget promo leaves out the details, but we are left with the impression that the punishing, prissy schoolmarm and her labor protector threaten Gyllenhaal’s moppet.

Distributed by 20th Century Fox, the film, billed as “inspired by actual events,” opens Sept. 28 nationwide.

The actual events? Well, that’s where the made-for-Hollywood trope breaks down. They haven’t exactly, precisely happened yet, even if the conservative billionaire behind the film wishes they had.


A trailer for the forthcoming motion picture “Won’t Back Down.”

The movie’s quest is modeled on the school takeovers imagined by supporters — to be clear, on both sides of the political aisle — of so-called parent-trigger laws, which empower fed-up communities to close failing schools or convert them into charters.

Seven states currently have parent-trigger laws on the books. During this year’s Minnesota legislative session, two versions were introduced at the Capitol. Neither passed.

The first and most famous of the laws is California’s, passed in 2010. Parents there have twice tried to pull the metaphorical trigger, and twice ended up in the courts. An early effort in Compton was stopped after the school district challenged proponents’ gathering of signatures on the required petitions.

On Monday, a San Bernardino Superior Court judge sided with parents in Adelanto, northeast of Los Angeles, who want to take over an elementary school and convert it into a charter. The district’s school board was reported to be considering an appeal.

Pennsylvania, where Gyllenhaal’s and Davis’ Erin Brockovich-scale campaign is set, does not have a parent-trigger law. In the movie, the state’s law deviates radically from the real-life ones in that it requires the involvement of teachers.

It is, of course, not the first time Hollywood has resorted to a deus ex machina to circumnavigate some inconvenient truthiness — in this case, that you can’t discuss the merits or demerits of parent-trigger laws without considering the role of teacher unions in education reform.

That ideological hairball is, of course, what choked the controversial documentary “Waiting for Superman,” released two years ago to much critical acclaim, much political unhappiness and little box-office success. Rightly or wrongly — and no one was neutral on this one — it was depicted as anti-union.

“Superman” was funded by Bill Gates, the progressive-leaning Participant Media and Walden Media, which is funded by the aforementioned billionaire, Philip Anschutz. This time, Walden hopes to capture a broader audience.

Already, large segments of that broader audience are fretting that the movie will demonize teachers and romanticize an as-yet-unproven policy.

Whether they are right won’t be known for two months yet. Still, it seems likely that the filmmakers are at least as interested in creating reality as they are in reflecting it.