Waiting for Superman

by Chester E. Finn Jr.

Feeling just the least bit sheepish about being one of the few people in the throng who hadn’t already seen this film, I went last evening (with Fordham research director Amber Winkler) to the big Paramount/Viacom-sponsored Washington premiere of the much-discussed new education movie Waiting for Superman.

It was, as they say, a glittering crowd, at least as much as this town can muster, a sort of Hollywood-meets-Washington-meets-education-reform soiree. It was mobbed and sorta swanky, too.

Aside from all that, it’s quite a movie. See it if you haven’t. It’s emotionally wringing: A few of these needy, earnest, capable kids with anxious, hopeful parents make it through the lottery into high-performance charter schools while others — far too many others — do not. Maybe 80 percent of today’s most compelling ed-reform issues are aired and nearly always from the reformers’ perspective. The cinematography is terrific as are most of the graphics and animations.

It isn’t perfect. The “superman” angle is a little hokey, and the ending is a little forced. Davis Guggenheim cannot curb his Gore-o-phile predilections when selecting unflattering film clips of GOP presidents.

But it surely gets an A-minus as a high-status, Hollywood-generated boost to the kinds of changes that a lot of us have been pushing for a very long time. (A veteran D.C. pundit leaned over and kindly suggested that my life has not been lived in vain!) The education “blob” — mainly the teacher unions but also school boards, bureaucracies, etc. — gets the drubbing that it richly deserves but rarely receives from such mainstream and corporate (and left-wing) sources.

For a while, it even felt like the reformers were triumphing. Then I saw how few kids were triumphing. And I looked at the audience and saw Michelle Rhee, whose steely, kid-centered commitment to reform — she plays a starring role in this film, along with Geoffrey Canada — was repudiated just 24 hours earlier by D.C.’s Democratic voters. In truth, the timing of this Washington premiere was simply awful and made the evening doubly poignant. I couldn’t bear to stick around for the Michelle face off with the AFT’s Randi Weingarten in the panel discussion to follow. Besides, the hour was late, I’m getting old, and Amber had a long subway ride ahead of her.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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