09/28/2012 07:02 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

The Reality Behind 'Won't Back Down's' Story of Parental Empowerment

A parent's effort to transform a failing school is the subject of a highly anticipated new motion picture called Won't Back Down. "Inspired by actual events," the movie tells the story of a parent, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who joins forces with a teacher, played by Viola Davis, to fix their children's struggling school.

Some of those who have seen advanced screenings of the movie, which will be released nationally on September 28th, have criticized it as "a work of fiction." Yes, the movie is a work of fiction. But for the parents of Desert Trails Elementary School, the real story is far more dramatic than the Hollywood version.

Several years ago, Cynthia Ramirez and her family moved to Adelanto, California, a small, working-class Mojave Desert community, 80 miles north of Los Angeles. They bought a house at the height of the real-estate boom, but when they registered their daughter for kindergarten at local Desert Trails Elementary School, they learned that their American dream had become a nightmare.

Desert Trails ranked last among schools in the district and was in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide. Last year, two-thirds of the children failed the state reading exam. Nearly 80 percent failed the science exam. The school had not met state standards for six years. Their daughter had a less than 5 percent chance of attending college.

Cynthia didn't give up -- she got involved. She volunteered at her school and joined the PTA. She met with her daughter's teachers to find out why the homework she was given was the same as the work she did in class. She asked them to challenge her daughter more and she did her best to supplement that effort at home. But it wasn't working. By the time her daughter reached third grade, she knew she had lost valuable years. Cynthia's daughter was not getting the education she deserved.

That's when PTA parent Doreen Diaz approached her about forming a parents' union. Doreen told Cynthia about California's groundbreaking Parent Trigger law, which gives parents the power to transform their school by obtaining signatures from half the parents at the school. Doreen and Cynthia joined with other parents to form the Desert Trails Parents Union (DTPU). The union set out to organize the school's parents as advocates for change, eventually winning support from 70 percent of the school's parents.

After meeting with the school's teachers and administration, DTPU parents developed a list of objectives for the school. The basis for this list represented a new paradigm in education reform -- the simple concept that every decision should be driven by the best interests of the children.

DTPU's "kids-first agenda" sounded alarm bells within the bureaucracy. Despite the fact that their proposal was modeled after contracts that NEA and AFT affiliates had already approved in other districts, the district rejected it. The parents put another proposal up, one in which parents, teachers and the district would work together to make changes to the school. That too was rejected.

The district fought every step of the way to deny any changes proposed by the parents. They launched a campaign of harassment against the DTPU parents intended to coerce parents into rescinding their signatures and support. Parents who signed the petition were threatened with deportation and the expulsion of their children from the school. There was even evidence that signatures were falsified on a rescission petition.

The parents did not back down. They filed suit under California's Parent Trigger law, a landmark case in which the judge recently ruled on behalf of the parents' right to unionize and bring about reforms.

The parents celebrated their historic victory, because of the implications for their own children, but also because they understood the impact this ruling could have upon parents trapped in failing schools all across the nation. DTPU immediately began soliciting proposals to run their school. They even invited the district to submit a proposal. The district refused.

Then last month the district made the shocking decision to openly defy the court order and deny the parents their right to select a new charter operator for their school. One of the school board members even said about his vote: "If I am found in contempt of court, I brought my own handcuffs. Take me away today, I don't care anymore."

That's the difference. Parents do care -- especially when their children's future is at stake. For too long our education system has been hindered by a myriad of special interests all fighting to protect their turf at all costs. And in the present day status quo, it is our children who are the losers.

In Adelanto, California Cynthia Martinez and Doreen Diaz are fighting to make sure that doesn't happen. And all across America, other parents are taking up the fight as well. They are facing down some of the most powerful forces in American politics on behalf of their kids, demanding a seat at the table, and refusing to back down in the face of crushing opposition.

That is the real story behind "Won't Back Down."

Ben Austin is the Executive Director of Parent Revolution and a former member of the California State Board of Education.