Las Vegas Sun

June 24, 2024


Nevadans weigh ‘parent trigger’ idea, empowering parents to reform failing schools

Won't Back Down

Kerry Hayes, Walden Media

Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Emily Alyn Lind are portrayed in “Won’t Back Down,” which spotlights “parent trigger” laws that allow parents to take over and change a school.

Won't Back Down trailer

Fed-up parents who wish to turn around their child's failing school may soon be able to pressure school boards to action, according to a new policy being considered by Nevada lawmakers and touted by an upcoming Hollywood movie.

The nonprofit Parent Revolution — which has lobbied for the passage of the controversial "parent trigger" law in several states — has submitted a bill draft request to state Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas.

The proposed bill would allow parents and teachers to petition school district officials to execute one of several federal recipes for school improvement, including replacing the principal and half the staff, closing the school or converting it into a charter school.

This push to implement the "parent trigger" law in Nevada will likely be bolstered by the film "Won't Back Down," premiering Sept. 28. The movie, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, was prescreened to education reform advocates in Las Vegas on Monday night.

"Won't Back Down" chronicles two parents' efforts to take over their children's low-performing school in an impoverished Pittsburgh neighborhood. The movie, in particular, highlights the struggles and obstacles parents face in applying the "parent trigger" law, mainly the school district bureaucracy and push-back from the local teachers union.

"This is a great launching pad for a spirited discussion about our shared responsibility in making sure all of our kids have the high quality education they deserve," said Lea Crusey, Nevada director of StudentsFirst, a nonprofit education group that is sponsoring screenings of "Won't Back Down" across the country.

The film is inspired by true events that occurred in California, the first state to sign the "parent trigger" law into action in 2010. This policy, which proponents argue empowers parents to advocate for their children's education, has been gaining in popularity across the country.

Mississippi, Texas and Ohio have enacted "parent trigger" legislation, similar to California's. Connecticut, Indiana and Louisiana have passed weaker versions of California's law, according to StudentsFirst.

Furthermore, 15 other states — including Nevada — are now considering authorizing a "parent trigger" policy, according to StudentsFirst.

"If there's an appetite for this, why not?" said Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz, D-North Las Vegas. She attended the movie screening and sat on a panel discussion afterward. "Parents are the best advocates for their children," she said.

Allison Serafin, who is running for the state school board, echoed Diaz's comments.

"Ultimately, we have to do what's best for students," Serafin said. "All options need to be on the table. Period."

Nevada, which was recently ranked dead last in the nation for education, would be ripe for the "parent trigger" policy, said Ryan Donohue, deputy national advocacy director of Parent Revolution.

"If any state needs it, Nevada is one of them," Donohue said. "We want to empower parents to get them involved in the political process and force school districts to listen to what parents want."

The "parent trigger" policy also has received support from many city mayors, including Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman. Goodman, who attended the movie screening, co-sponsored a resolution supporting the policy at the U.S. Conference of Mayors this summer. The resolution passed unanimously.

So far, most of the education "reforms" implemented in the Clark County School District have been top-down changes, Donohue said. For example, the School District applied the federal "turnaround" model at three low-performing high schools, including Donohue's alma mater Chaparral High School.

Last year, the district replaced Chaparral's principal, more than half of its staff and instituted a bevy of changes in curriculum, scheduling, student mentoring and teacher training. At the end of the year, Chaparral saw a boost in attendance, positive student behavior, graduation rates and test scores.

The School District, encouraged by millions in federal stimulus dollars, enacted this "turnaround" from the top down. If a "parent trigger" law were to be passed in Nevada, parents could spur the district from the bottom up to take action to improve their school, Donohue said.

Stimulating that parental involvement may be difficult in some of Las Vegas' most disadvantaged neighborhoods, said Chaparral Principal Dave Wilson, who attended the movie screening. Parents may be too busy working to make ends meet that advocating for their child's education falls by the wayside, Wilson said, pointing to lackluster attendance at Chaparral's open house.

"I want parents to be involved," Wilson said. "If you can get parents to be involved, you can work miracles."

Education reform movies, such as "Won't Back Down," may help encourage parents to get involved in education, Clark County teacher Christine Simo said. The movie may spark public action over other education reform efforts, such as ending seniority-based teacher layoffs, she said.

"We've got to say enough is enough," Simo said. "There are way too many failing schools in Las Vegas. We have to do something. Everyone has to come together and raise our voices."

Critics of "Won't Back Down" have argued the movie presents an overly simplistic view of "failing" schools, blames ineffective teachers and antagonizes teachers unions. Others argue movies such as "Won't Back Down" and "Waiting for Superman" favor charter school operators, which have a mixed record of success.

Still, Shirley Ford, a community advocate with Parent Revolution, remained adamant in the power of films such as "Won't Back Down" in advocating for school changes. Ford was among the first parents in Los Angeles to use the "parent trigger" law to transform one of the city's lowest-performing high schools into a college preparatory school.

"Change has to come from the parents," Ford said. "We don't have time to wait around for bureaucrats. We need immediate action now."

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