Pocket Full of Kryptonite

'Waiting for Superman' has teachers unions hatching their own PR schemes

After a successful run at the Sundance Film Festival and openings in New York and Los Angeles, the documentary “Waiting for Superman” makes its Detroit-area debut this weekend at the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak. The film, which documents the failings of public school systems throughout the country, is apparently less than complimentary towards teacher unions. (Yours truly will have a review early next week.)

The Michigan Education Association has already started its public relations response, starting with a special website “Real School Heroes,” which predictably misses the point. “Heroes” asks the public and MEA supporters to submit stories about great teachers they know about, but nobody denies that there are some genuinely excellent teachers in the public schools who have made real differences in the lives of their students. The problem isn’t individual teachers, it’s a larger system that protects mediocrity and incompetence, and elevates political correctness over the fundamentals of reading, writing, math, science and history. And teachers unions like MEA have been both the strongest defenders and the largest beneficiaries of this system. This documentary has the union strengthening its defenses for the system yet again.

Director Davis Guggenheim is no libertarian purist — he was also responsible for Al Gore’s environmental tall tale “An Inconvenient Truth” — but by all accounts he has put together an intriguing and revealing story here. “Superman” is about to run into one of the nation’s most ruthless and well-funded public relations machines, though, in the National Education Association. NEA took in $355 million dollars in union dues and agency fees during the 2008-2009 school year. Its Michigan affiliate, the MEA, took in $66 million by itself.

All this money ultimately came from taxpayers on behalf of teachers who individually have little say in whether or not to pay dues or how those dues are spent. Our past research shows that only a third of that is needed to represent teachers. You can buy a lot of kryptonite with what’s left over.

But we are long overdue for a serious discussion about education in Michigan and the country as a whole, one with everything, including the role of teachers unions, on the table. One hopes that “Waiting for Superman” is all it’s cracked up to be, and that it can cut through the fog created by millions of dollars of union dues.