The Corner

Still Waiting for Superman

It was extremely disappointing that Waiting for Superman did not make the Oscar cut. Powerful, polemical, and deeply moving, it was just what the education debate in this country needs: an airing at the Oscars would have been all to the good.

Those interested in charter schools should also take time to see The Lottery (directed by Madeleine Sackler and, full disclosure, produced by an acquaintance of mine), another very fine documentary on this topic that was also up for consideration. It didn’t get through either. And that’s a shame too.

This article in the Wall Street Journal gives a flavor of the latter film, which is NYC-centric and lower budget — but perhaps harder edged — than Waiting for Superman.

Finding out that the teachers union had hired a rent-a-mob to protest on its behalf was “the turn for us in the process.” That story—of self-interested adults trying to deny poor parents choice for their children—provided an answer to Ms. Sackler’s fundamental question: “If there are these high-performing schools that are closing the achievement gap, why aren’t there more of them?”

The reason is what Eva Moskowitz, founder of the Harlem Success Academy network and a key character in the film, calls the “union-political-educational complex.” That’s a fancy term for the web of unions and politicians who defend the status quo in order to protect their jobs….

In the course of making “The Lottery,” Ms. Sackler got to know the nature of that coalition intimately. “On day one, of course, I was very interested in all sides. I was in no way affiliated.” From the beginning, she requested meetings with then UFT President Randi Weingarten, or anyone representing the union position. They refused.

Viewers still get a sense of the union’s position, but it comes from the mouths of some unsavory New York pols. Take, for example, a scene from the film featuring a City Council hearing on charter school expansion. “The UFT was exposed at this particular City Council hearing,” she says, “because they were caught giving out scripted cue cards with specific questions for City Council members to ask charter representatives in the city.” Unlike many of the politicians, who came and went from the chamber during the seven-hour hearing, Ms. Sackler remained. And she watched as the scripted questions were repeated and repeated and repeated….

Evasion is one tactic. So is propagating myths about Harlem Success—that it only succeeds because it has smaller class sizes; or that its children’s test scores are so high because it gets more money. The truth is that the school gets superior results with the same or slightly bigger class sizes and less state money per pupil. In 2009, 95% of third-graders at Harlem Success passed the state’s English Language Arts exam. Only 51% of third graders in P.S. 149, the traditional public school that shares the same building, did. That same year, Harlem Success was No. 1 in math out of 3,500 public schools in New York State. The unions and the politicians also play on Harlemites’ fears by alleging that charters divide the community and are a “tool for gentrification.” This canard only holds up if you think uniforms and longer school days are a sign of cultural imperialism.

Quite. Read the whole thing.

And yes, the fact that the best chance for the children depicted in this film to find a good education rests on a lottery is grotesque.


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