After seeing the illuminating new documentary Waiting for Superman, I’ve decided that the lively debate at my house around public or private school for our 3-year-old is officially over: private all the way. It may sound harsh and dismissive, but even the limited but powerful dissection of the education system presented by director-writer Davis Guggenheim and his team — the folks who brought us An Inconvenient Truth — is proof positive how f***ed up, pardon my French, public education is.
At the New York City premiere, attended by some of those featured in the film, George Stephanopoulos introduced the director with this proclamation: “This film is going to break your heart.” Well, yes, since the film, which opens in select theaters today, personalizes the crisis by spotlighting several children and their families as they struggle to find better and alternative educational opportunities, with mixed success.
Following doe-eyed hopefuls such as Anthony in Washington, D.C., Daisy in Los Angeles and Francisco in New York City, the film reminds us that behind every statistic is a young mind that has been trampled upon and beat down.
The film isn’t subtle in setting up its good guys-vs.-bad guys dichotomy. It documents “dropout factories,” schools that barely graduate anyone, and the “dance of the lemons,” known by aliases such as “pass the trash” and the “turkey trot,” where horrid teachers are passed from school to school. The film demonizes the American Federation of Teachers and its president, Randi Weingarten, for holding fast to union contracts that make it all but impossible to get rid of bad teachers or discipline mediocre ones. Watching the film, sadness isn’t the gut response. The overwhelming emotion is anger. No water in the eyes, but a balling of fists.
The film offers up charter schools as a panacea and showcases successes such as the Green Dot Public Schools, the national network of Kipp college-prep schools, and the indomitable Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy Charter Schools. It also focuses on the tribulations of soon-to-be-outgoing D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and frames her as a hard-nosed reformer running up against an entrenched system.
It’s airbrushed, to say the least, since there are studies that show four out of five charter schools, on average, are no better than neighborhood schools. And Rhee’s management style owes more to Generalissimo Francisco Franco than to Bayard Rustin.
Entrance to some of these elite charter schools is what provides the ultimate drama in Waiting for Superman. All of the children featured are entered into lotteries for an alternative school; the heartbreak comes when we witness the outcomes, which are decidedly mixed. But the truly stunning and abiding reality is that these are the kids with engaged parents, grandparents and/or guardians. What about the millions of kids who don’t have family support and, by extension, a ticket? Those for whom the fault-line issues of poverty, class divisions and race are DNA markers from which they cannot escape?
It’s a measure of Guggenheim’s honesty that he begins the film by talking about how he sends his kids to private school because the available public schools in his Los Angeles neighborhood just don’t cut it. I admire his concern and desire to change the way things are, but I ain’t mad at his personal choice: I’m right behind him.
Nick Charles is a regular contributor to The Root.