The initial impact of a California law designed to empower parents’ say in improving underperforming local schools is tracked in “We the Parents.” James Takata’s straightforward documentary (co-written with Jennifer Welsh Takata) offers an inspiring if highly partisan look at grassroots community action influencing a frequently broken-down public education system that seldom seems to be getting real help from government minders. Hourlong pic opens on single screens Aug. 16 in Los Angeles and Sept. 6 in New York, though its length and subject seem best suited to broadcast play. And, of course, it’s a ready-made organizing tool.
In 2010, Parent Revolution, a new nonprofit lobbying organization headed by executive director Ben Austin and funded by high-profile orgs (like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), spearheaded a California campaign to pass law allowing a majority of parent signatures to transform troubled local schools. This parent-trigger bill specified such changes might include replacing principal and staff, turning the institution into a charter school, or shuttering it entirely.
But it was vaguely worded enough that when Austin & Co. chose McKinley Elementary in Compton, Calif. — where a tiny percentage of students earn state college entry — for their test run, myriad questions remained as to how (or whether) the law could be implemented. Media-typed as Los Angeles’ locus for minority drug/gang violence, Compton is seen here in its lesser-known capacity as a neighborly home to working-class African-American and Latino families who want their children to have better opportunities than they did. Many of the city’s public educational facilities, however, are among the 250 “failing schools” in greater Los Angeles.
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Hoping to turn McKinley into a charter school modeled on a high-performing one nearby, Parent Revolution gathered the required number of signatures. But those petitions were questioned and their plea rejected by the Compton Unified School District board, amid major media attention. The story spread across the state and entire nation, as individual communities and state legislatures agitated toward parent-trigger initiatives.
“We the Parents” usefully focuses on a few impassionated mom-activists — who encounter surprising hostility from some other parents, as well as bureaucrats — while including input from various public office-holders, journalists and other outside viewpoints. Yet notably, no McKinley teachers are interviewed (were they really so incompetent? What systemic factors were they up against?), and the film doesn’t address the accusations of union busting that Parent Revolution stirred. Sheepish, bewildered statements from McKinley’s principal don’t help.
Parent-trigger laws have been accused in some quarters of being advanced by conservative corporate and political bodies that simply seek to disenfranchise teachers’ unions. Pic does include fleeting mention that McKinley’s test scores were already going up before Parent Revolution chose it as a guinea pig.
While no doubt a more evenhanded documentary remains to be made on this issue, the Takatas’ effort is polished and convincing on its own terms. Susan Chien’s brief, simple animations diversify a pro package.