Over the past couple months, I've been asked to participate in a few panel discussions about Waiting for "Superman". The film presents a stark, moving portrayal of the denial of educational opportunities in low-income communities of color. But while the movie includes statements such as 'we know what's wrong' and 'we know how to fix it', viewers of the movie are hard-pressed to identify those causes and solutions -- other than to boo and hiss at teachers' unions and to cheer at the heroic charter school educators.
So in the panel discussions we try to make sense of that simplistic black-hat/white-hat story. We argue about whether the movie offers a fair and complete picture (it doesn't even come close, unfortunately). But we never get to deeper issues about what's wrong and how to fix it.
I thought about that when leaving a showing of the other prominent documentary currently showing, called Inside Job. It offers an explanation of how the current economic crisis came about, describing the securitization of mortgages; the extraordinary leveraging of assets; the regulatory capture by Wall Street leading to minimal enforcement of federal regulations -- a deregulation intended to spur innovation; and the fraud, greed, hubris and general belief among hedge fund titans and others in the financial services world that they are infallible. The film also points out the growing and now extreme inequality of wealth distribution in the United States "The top 1 percent of American earners took in 23.5 percent of the nation's pretax income in 2007 -- up from less than 9 percent in 1976."
Consider those final three items: (1) the advocacy of deregulation in order to free up innovation, (2) hubris and general belief among hedge fund titans that they are infallible, and (3) increased wealth inequality. If Superman had explored these issues instead of bashing unions and promoting charters, moviegoers might have walked away understanding a great deal about why the families it profiled and so many similar families across America face a bleak educational future.
The movie certainly showed scenes of poverty, but its implications and the structural inequalities underlying that poverty were largely ignored. Devastating urban poverty was just there -- as if that were somehow the natural order of things but if we could only 'fix' schools it would disappear. Rick Hanushek is put forth, saying that if we fire the bottom 5 to 10 percent of the lowest-performing teachers every year, our national test scores would soon approach Finland at the top of international rankings in mathematics and science. But no mention is made of the telling fact that Finland had, in 2005, a child poverty rate of 2.8 percent while the United States had a rate of 21.9 percent. That gap has likely gotten even bigger over the intervening five years.
Rather than addressing these poverty issues, Superman serves up innovation through privatization and deregulation. We're shown charter schools that give hope to these families. But what we're not told is that the extra resources and opportunities found in these charters are funded in large part with donations from Wall Street hedge fund millionaires and billionaires. Problems of structural inequality and intergenerational poverty are pushed aside in favor of a 'solution' grounded in the belief that deregulation will prompt innovation, all the while guided by the infallible judgment of Wall Street tycoons. It's no wonder that Inside Job better explained the school crisis than did Waiting for Superman.