No Longer <i>Waiting for "Superman"</i>

Davis Guggenheim may be good at outlining problems with the environment and with the schools, but he basically has no real solutions to offer.
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I still have not decided whether I will ever see the movie Waiting for "Superman." I feel some obligation as a teacher to have a first-hand look at its proposals for public school reform (or is it deform), but I don't like that its website claims that every one who even "pledges" to see the movie supports its advocacy of charter schools and its attacks on teachers and the teachers' union.

Fortunately, it has not been difficult to wait for the movie. Three weeks after opening, despite tens of hundreds of thousands of dollars in radio, television, and newspaper advertising, and a big promotion by a "shocked" and doe-eyed Oprah who never imagined how poorly some schools were performing, the movie remains in limited release at a few theaters, mostly in Manhattan. There are no showings in Brooklyn where I live, despite the fact that its two and a half million people could really use better public schools.

The real question for me is where the money came from to make the pseudo-documentary and who is paying to promote a movie that no one apparently wants to see. The answer, of course, is from "Big Bill" Gates and a gaggle of hedge fund investors who smell mega-profits if government financed private for profit McSchools are allowed to muscle in on public school dollars. The film is executive produced and financed by Participant Media, which was founded by former eBayist Jeffrey Skoll. Participant Media's current CEO is Jim Berk. When Berk was Chairman and CEO of Gryphon Colleges Corporation, he was responsible for the formation of a private company operating for-profit schools.

While Oprah, who is donating money to charter schools, is just willfully ignorant, these guys are sharks. The Denver-based Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit venture capital fund, recently announced it had secured $80 million in initial commitments with big donations coming from among others the Walton Family Foundation. Wal-Mart is also a big supporter of the Waiting for "Superman" social action campaign and seems primed to provide us with Wal-Mart Academies modeled on big box stores that destroy communities and small businesses, drive down wages, and provide us with endless quantities of junk.

One of my teacher education students, Justin Sulsky, saw the movie and reported:

it really wasn't as powerful as the media was making it out to be. It oversimplified the problem a lot and was very outdated. For example, the rubber rooms closed, the Washington Teachers Union agreed to Michelle Rhee's plan to accept higher pay in lieu of tenure, and Fenty/Rhee were defeated by voters. The movie made it seem like charter schools were all good and neighborhood public schools were all bad. The kids who lost the lottery would have no hope. They never followed up on if the student who went to the boarding charter school did better than the kids who went to their neighborhood schools. Also, we saw why charter schools can do better... all the parents who entered their students in the lottery had the social capital to research schools, tour them, etc. The neediest families who have parents disengaged from their kids wouldn't be able to enter them in the lottery. I'm annoyed that the media (Joe Scarborough and Oprah) hyped it up so much because it truly was not that riveting or emotionally stirring. About 10 people walked out of the movie in the middle who seemed bored by it.

As best as I can tell from the clips flooding YouTube, the film is mostly heartwrenching propaganda. It may deserve an Academy Award nomination, but certainly not as a documentary. Charming kids face edu-death and hopeless futures unless they win the lottery and gain access to a - charter school! Didn't we see this before in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?

By the way, I had similar reactions to filmmaker Davis Guggenheim's other major venture, An Inconvenient Truth. featuring Al Gore. After two hours of Gore showing PowerPoint slides of climate changes that threatened global catastrophe, we had a quick ten minutes of proposed solutions that never addressed the magnitude of the problems being described. Guggenheim may be good at outlining problems with the environment and with the schools, but he basically has no real solutions to offer.

None of the talking heads in the movie -- Bill Gates, Geoffrey Canada, or Michelle Rhee -- ever address why education is a limited resource that is rationed in the most affluent country in the world, or why 25% of this country's Black and Hispanic population live below the poverty line. Canada, founder of the successful Harlem Children's Zone project, which improves student performance in school by providing intensive support for families within a small clearly defined neighborhood, knows how expensive real education is, but he either forgets to mention it or these comments were cut from a movie that promotes simplistic and cheaper solutions. Anyway, he probably does not want to alienate the deep-pocket philanthropists who finance his program and want to dismantle the public school system.

The movie also leaves out that some of the supporters of the charter school movement are just downright sleazy. In some ways, the Reverend Floyd Flake of St. Albans, Queens is typical. Flake is a former Congressman who used his political connections to build a church, private school, social service, and real estate empire using public funds. He has become a very wealthy man and he is now on the board of Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a school vouchers propaganda outfit created by the far-right Bradley Foundation.

The movie, of course, has convenient villains in the big, bad teachers' union and its evil leader Randi Weingarten. I am not a fan of stands taken by the AFT or Weingarten on many educational issues. Weingarten is a lawyer who rose to the top spot in the teachers' union as a career bureaucrat. But let's be clear -- in this time of budget cuts and economic austerity, the teachers' union is probably the only group preventing right-wing politicians from defunding education in the United States. If their fingers slip from the hole in dike and the flood waters pour in, we may be left with no functioning schools, not just poorly funded and performing ones. If you don't believe me, during the New York City budget crisis of the mid-1970s, class sizes in high schools exceeded 60 students per class, and only the efforts of the teachers' union brought it down to the more manageable mid-30s. In those days students rotated in and out of seats, sat on the floor and windowsills, or stood in the back, and no education took place for months.

The movie also selectively looks at the "facts." At least one in five charter schools are failing, many urban schools do very well, and nobody seems to feel that the suburban public school system needs to be abandoned. According to a 2009 study by the National Charter School Study group at Stanford University, only 17% of charter schools have achieved academic results that were significantly better than traditional public schools.

The supposed success of charters schools is not quite what it seems. Quality education is expensive. In Los Angeles billionaire businessman Eli Broad and a handful of other donors recently had to pump $700,000 in emergency funds into the ICEF network of 15 charter schools just to keep them afloat.

The fact is that most parents and children, in both the cities and the suburbs, seem to be proud of their schools. My step-daughter and son-in-law seem very pleased with the public school attended by my six-year-old first grade twin grandchildren. It is not a charter or a special magnet, just an ordinary school serving a mixed working-class and middle-class community in Brooklyn.

There are parents, teachers, and students who are fighting back against propaganda like Waiting for "Superman" and the charter school movement and all of its misrepresentations. The most important group is a Milwaukee-based organization called Rethinking Schools. The group is sponsoring a website where people can post comments on the movie, charter schools, and education in general. It is well worth a visit.

Note: In a previous version of this post I incorrectly identified KIPP charter schools as a recipient of a bailout by the Eli Broad Foundation. The correct information is from an article in the Los Angeles Times: "A group of the city's leading philanthropists, including billionaire Eli Broad and former mayor Richard Riordan, rallied Monday to save ICEF Public Schools, one of the nation's largest and most successful charter school companies, which was teetering on financial insolvency. ICEF, which operates 15 schools in low-income minority neighborhoods of Los Angeles, was virtually out of cash, unlikely to meet its Oct. 1 payroll. The nonprofit faced a $2-million deficit in the current budget year as well as substantial long-term debt."

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