“Waiting for ‘Superman’
” is not only the most important documentary made in many a year but it might also help to restore a little of your faith in humanity, and I’m not even talking about the movie itself, which I’ll get to in a bit. I’m talking about its creator Davis Guggenheim
, best known for directing and winning the Oscar for Al Gore’s alarmist global warming screed “An Inconvenient Truth.” In an era when, in order to hold on to power and take control of our lives, the Left tells Big Lies just as quickly as they can make them up, along comes Guggenheim, an acknowledged pro-union liberal, to take on the most powerful, and in my opinion destructive, special interest group in America: the national teachers union.
Whatever his personal beliefs were as he began the process of documenting the fate of five children whose very futures rest on the less-than 10% chance of being accepted into a charter school, in the end Guggenheim risks the grave sin of apostasy as he courageously bucks the left-wing narrative to present a heartbreaking and damning exposé of the American public school system.
Had the exact same film been brought forth by a right-winger it would have had zero chance of creating any kind of national debate, much less change. But coming with Guggenheim’s clout and left-wing bona fides, there’s a chance his noble effort could spread a Road to Damascus virus among those who have for too long turned a blind eye towards an indefensibly immoral system propped up at the expense of children. Armed with facts and actual inconvenient truths, “Superman” deconstructs every lie told by politicians, union officials and bad teachers in defense of a status quo that destroys as many, if not more lives than drugs or gangs.
Anthony, a 5th grader from DC who lost his father to drugs; Francisco, a 2nd grader from the Bronx; Bianca, a kindergartner from Harlem whose working single mother can no longer afford Catholic school; Daisy, a Los Angeles fifth grader; and Emily a middle-class 8th grader from Silicon Valley, are all on the bubble – especially the first four who are minority children living in rundown inner-city neighborhoods and in families dealing with unemployment, under-employment and in all but one case, a single parent household. To say these kids are at risk is an understatement, and Guggenheim introduces us to them at what might be the most important crossroad of their lives. The parents know it, and because they’re incredibly intuitive, so do the kids. One path leads to what is most likely to be a hopeless future thanks to a failing public school with a horrific drop-out rate. The other path leads to a dynamic charter school (that receives both private and public money) freed from the shackles of an unreasonable, unethical and entitled teachers union where graduation rates can exceed 90%.
Incredibly, although it does appear to be the fairest method, the fate of American children desperate for a chance at a real education depends on a lottery system. Whether it’s bouncing bingo balls, a computer, or pulling names from a bucket -- at schools across the country, every year hundreds of families gather in the hopes that Lady Luck won’t condemn their child to a “Failure Factory.”
To Guggenheim’s credit, a large part of his documentary focuses on what can and does work. If the film has a real-life Superman it’s Geoffrey Canada, a Harvard-educated reformer who intentionally chose the worst school district in the country to start a charter school in order to prove his belief that regardless of socio-economic background, with attentive teachers doing what it takes to make sure no child falls behind, these kids can be ready for college. Currently his Harlem-based charter school is producing much better graduation rates and a much higher percentage of students ready for college than the average suburban school.
If there’s a Superwoman, Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee
is it. Her tireless fight against an intractable union culminates in the ridiculous and the tragic when the union refuses to even allow for a vote a proposal that could potentially double teacher salaries if in exchange they agree to accountability by giving up the tenure (earned after only three years) that makes it virtually impossible to fire them for anything. In one incredible aside, we learn that the State of New York spends $100 million a year on teachers who have been removed from the classroom for a potential fire-able offense and, while being paid full salary and benefits, hang out all day in what’s called the “Rubber Room” playing cards and reading newspapers as they’re put through a termination process that rarely results in termination.
Guggenheim doesn’t slam teachers, though. In fact, he has an enormous amount of respect for what they do and believes the good ones need to be paid better. But as one person informs us, the problem is that the unions see it as “a teacher, is a teacher, is a teacher,” and they fight tooth-and-nail against any proposal involving pay based on merit and make it impossible to get rid of the 6-10% of bad teachers who are shuffled from school to school and literally destroy lives by allowing their students to fall so far behind they eventually lose hope and drop out. If you’re looking for context, the national average of doctors and lawyers who lose their license is somewhere around 1 in 75, for teachers it’s a jaw-dropping 1 in 2500.
And a lack of funding is most certainly not the problem. As the film informs us, prior to the 1970s the American public education system was the envy of the world. But over the past 40 years as per student spending has risen (allowing for inflation) from $4,000 to $9,000, student performance rates have hit bottom when compared to other industrial nations.
If anything, Guggenheim sees money as the problem and doesn’t shy away from the fact that it’s Democrats in bed with the teachers unions – who just so happen to be the most powerful lobbying force in the country (oil companies are a distant second). The director even gives George W. Bush credit for reaching across the aisle to Senator Kennedy and at least trying accountability with No Child Left Behind. But as the film’s informative and creative animation (think Schoolhouse Rock) informs us, NCLB just isn’t the solution.
Schools are failing due to lack of funding? That’s a lie.
Kids from troubled homes and poor socio-economic backgrounds can’t learn? Another provable lie. And what proves it best is the devastated look on the faces of those parents who don't win the lottery – who believe their child might now be, as one parent so memorably puts it, “doomed.”
“Waiting for Superman” is nothing less than God’s work and is as deserving of as much support as we can possibly give it. Furthermore -- and who ever thought I’d write these words -- the director of, yes, “An Inconvenient Truth” deserves our respect Predictably, he’s already under fire from protesting teachers unions
. But in the end Guggenheim might prove to be the real Superman to these kids. After all, the old Vulcan proverb says that only Nixon can go to China. Well, maybe only a progressive can finally and forever make this righteous case to the well-intentioned but misinformed liberals standing in the way of much needed reform. Let’s just hope there are enough of them out there.