Saturday, February 19, 2011

Waiting for Superman in Wisconsin

I watched the documentary Waiting for Superman tonight, and was struck by the parallels to the political fight going on in Wisconsin.

Waiting for Superman tells the tales of five students trying to get out of their failing urban or suburban schools and into charter or private schools alongside a scathing indictment of the increasing cost and declining or stagnant quality of public school education in America.

Who's to blame for the failing system? Well the film points a lot of fingers, and many come back to union contract rules that prevent bad teachers from being fired and good teachers from being rewarded. The film's best line:
"It's very, very important to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. Teachers are great, a national treasure. Teachers' unions are, generally speaking, a menace and an impediment to reform."
Unions are a menace. No, that wasn't said by Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin, like you might be thinking. It came from Jonathan Alter, the progressive journalist at Newsweek and NBC. And in case you still don't think there is necessarily any criticism of Democratic politics, here's what Alter has to say on the film's website:
"When I was researching my book, The Promise, about President Obama, I learned of a meeting between President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan..." In the meeting, Alter says, Obama described his two education policy principles: Do what helps children, not adult interest groups, and don't put a stick in anybody's eye. "I think if you're motivated by the film to take action, abide by the first principle and ignore the second. Don't refrain from some very tough but necessary confrontations."
So ignore President Obama and put a stick in the eye of those "adult interest groups," if that's what needs to be done. Waiting for Superman director Davis Guggenheim also takes no prisoners:
"I'm tough on the Democratic Party. I'm tough on the centralized system of bureaucrats. And the lip service you get from all politicians. And I'm tough on the unions."
This was said in a Los Angeles Times interview, after describing how he drives past three public schools on the way to his children's private school. Who is Davis Guggenheim? He made Al Gore global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth. He won an Oscar for that film.

It's curious he's not up for another Oscar, but all Hollywood drives by those failing public schools, so maybe that would have been inconvenient. And his film has identified this as another inconvenient truth:
"While it used to be common for failing schools to be blamed on failing neighborhoods, people are now waking up to the fact that it may be the other way around. Schools fail first, and then neighborhoods follow."
Davis Guggenheim also made the Barack Obama bio that was shown during the Democratic National Convention in August 2008, and the Barack Obama campaign infomercial that was shown in October 2008. You don't get better progressive credentials than that.

U.S. public schools do not fail across the board, there are some very good schools as well as some very bad ones. So if you can get a good education for yourself and your children, why worry about other people's children? Where the film really lays it on the line is in talking about education as a competitive problem in the global economy:
"At the end of 2009, the unemployment rate was almost ten percent, but the high-tech industry could not find enough qualified people to fill their jobs. Instead, they had to go halfway around the world to recruit the engineers and programmers they needed."
The film leaves the last word on competitiveness to Bill Gates:
"The only really proven thing to make an economy work well is to have a well-educated workforce. And people get panicked about the economic success of this country. Well, there’s one thing that will determine that."
That brings us to Wisconsin. Republican Governor Scott Walker has ignited a firestorm of protest by proposing to take away collective bargain rights and require higher contributions to health and pension benefits from teachers and other public employees. The Wisconsin Capitol is overrun with protesting teachers and counter-protesting tea-partiers. Democratic legislators have skedaddled to deprive the Republicans who control the state legislature the quorum they need to pass the legislation.

If you watch Fox News or MSNBC, this is an existential fight for the future of the Democratic Party. But if you watch Waiting for Superman, you can't help wondering if the Republicans might be doing the dirty work for progressives who want to reign in the teacher unions. Wisconsin Republicans have certainly put a stick in the eye of the unions.

So is Governor Walker the Superman we've been waiting for to fix our public schools? We'll see. Walker's talk has been addressed more to the state budget than to education, and if he gets all or some of the financial concessions he is seeking he could let the teacher's union keep their collective bargaining rights and tenure.

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