Politics & Policy

Rocking the Boat on Education

A review of Waiting for Superman.

David Guggenheim, the man behind An Inconvenient Truth and Obama’s 2008 DNC bio-infomercial, has just released another film — this one a stabbing indictment of teachers’ unions and a plea for more charter schools, titled Waiting for Superman. Democrats for School Choice hosted an advance screening of the documentary, to which black clergy, New York City education chancellor Joel Klein, and National Review were invited. The school-choice cause evidently transcends traditional ideological boundaries.

Waiting for Superman intends to influence policy, yet its narrative follows not politicians, but five children. Bianca, Daisy, Emily, Anthony, and Francisco come from diverse locales — Harlem, L.A., Silicon Valley, D.C., and the Bronx — and are black, Hispanic, and white, but they share the same basic problem: Each is consigned by geography to an inadequate public school. Each wants a choice.

#ad#The stories — of Bianca, whose single black mother struggles to afford parochial school but misses the final payment that would let Bianca attend graduation, and of Anthony, who carries a picture of his dead, drug-using father as he seeks a spot at a rare charter boarding school that might keep him away from the streets, to name two — are heartbreaking. But the real message of the movie is revealed in the scenes of the adults who produce this heartbreak. Superman’s most memorable episode is the cartoon illustration of the “lemon dance,” in which school principals waltz their “lemons” (teachers who just can’t teach but can’t be fired) from school to school. The musical number would be hilarious if it weren’t so devastating. So, too, for the shots of the infamous “rubber rooms,” where middle-aged teachers sit in school kids’ chairs, playing cards or laying their heads on their desks to sleep, collecting full pay and pensions.

Guggenheim chooses one champion and one villainess. Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of D.C. schools, is energetic and assertive. She bluntly admits that D.C. students “are getting a crappy education right now,” she fires a couple hundred incompetent educators, institutes some incentive pay, and starts to turn D.C.’s schools around. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and Rhee’s foil, is on the defensive. She seems most solicitous about the egos of teachers; a speech to her union culminates in the cry, “You are heroes!” In her interviews, Weingarten reminds us what good-hearted people teachers are, and condemns school-choice advocates for demonizing teachers. She has maintained this pattern off-screen as well. “It’s in vogue to bash teachers and unions rather than celebrate the work they do to help kids,” she said, responding to Superman. “That being said, I’m a big girl.”

Weingarten, obviously, can take the criticism, but she hasn’t rebutted it. Perhaps it augurs victory that the only thing she can find to fault is her opponents’ tone of voice. For now, though, Weingarten still has the power and the money. Weingarten’s AFT funneled over $1 million to defeat D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty (who appointed and supported Rhee) in the recent Democratic primary. The winner, Vincent Gray, used his victory speech to announce his desire for “a strong, empowered chancellor who works withparents and teachers.”Translation: Rhee is out. This is part of a pattern. Guggenheim, whose political sympathies are normally liberal, admits that the Democratic party is, on education policy, a “wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers unions.” The AFT and NEA — combined, the biggest campaign contributors in the U.S. — send more than 90 percent of their donations to Democrats.

Last week’s D.C. primary is a fitting political backdrop to the narrative of Waiting for Superman. Unions stood in Rhee’s way every step of her chancellorship. An unforgettable scene in the documentary shows Rhee sitting aside from a podium, shouted down from her speech by members of D.C. teachers unions, full of sound and fury. “We will not be silenced,” a teacher snaps. Don’t doubt her.

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After the screening, we heard from Chancellor Joel Klein, and some of the founders and supporters of New York charter schools. As they moved to the center of the room to take questions, I noticed that they all, with the exception of Klein, were black. Klein explained why this was: “On three sides of Central Park, people have had school choice all along. Now, for the first time, on the fourth side — because we’ve opened up 26 charters up in Harlem — people have choice.” In other words, Klein wants to extend the privilege of voting with your feet beyond the boundaries of predominantly white, wealthy Manhattanites who can afford private schools. No wonder, then, the preponderance of black pastors. Rev. Dr. Alfred Cockfield, of God’s Battalion of Prayer Church in Brooklyn, was seeing the film for the second time. He was spreading a simple message: “This is a film that clergy need to see.”

#ad#Rev. David K. Brawley, pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn, runs the Imagine Me Leadership Academy. He founded the all-boys charter because “we looked at the East New York section of Brooklyn, looking at the incarceration rates of our sons, and decided that we needed to meet young males right where they are.” He described the opening day of his school: “One hundred and five African American men lined up to trade high-fives with our 120 boys, who we call leaders—it was one of the most empowering moments of my life. But I won’t lie: It is hard work.”

Rev. A. R. Bernard is a rather more unusual figure. A former Muslim, now a charismatic Christian preacher and published author, a black conservative who told The 700 Club that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton “know I represent a growing conservative movement in the [black] community,” he stands in front of the audience with impeccable dress and a shaking voice: “Gosh, I’m still processing that film.” As a pastor, he had to navigate the initial skepticism of some congregants when he helped establish the Cultural Arts Academy charter school. “It’s a little touchy, because we have a congregation of 33,000 members, so we have over 460 educators in the congregation, and they were supportive of the unions, and were a little tense about opening a charter school.” But that turmoil has been outweighed by the advantages. “We used the influence of the faith-based environment to bring a value to education. Value was lost somewhere, and somehow wealth was disconnected from education, and attached to sports and entertainment. We had to reorient the children to understand that true wealth is portable. It’s education.” Improving education, for Bernard, entails changing the culture.

Chancellor Klein, himself a product of New York public housing and public schools, hoped that if charter schools could teach kids that “your parents’ income won’t determine your life’s trajectory, then the whole world can change.”

Klein was emotional as he explained the difficulties school reformers face, and why the cause is allying poor, minority communities with conservatives and libertarians against public-sector unions. The important division, he said, shouldn’t be between Republicans and Democrats, between public schools and private, or between any one ideology or another — it’s about kids versus adults. “Right now, our kids aren’t getting educated because it’s all about the adults. We’ve put adults’ comfort before kids’ education. It’s not going to change until it becomes about the kids. The education monopoly wants to keep its monopoly. And unless people of faith and people of color get behind this thing, then this movie is just going to be another movie. The way things are now works just fine for the unions, many of the politicians, and others — that’s why it keeps going. So if we don’t rock this boat, we’re going to under-serve kids, mostly poor kids and kids of color.”

Waiting for Superman, with all the noise and buzz it’s generating, with the acclaim it’s received from diverse political circles, might be just the thing to start the boat rocking.

– Matthew Shaffer is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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