Go for the Movie, Stay for the Audience Reaction

'Superman' won't save progressives from an educational dilemma

By now the main themes of 'Waiting for Superman' should all be familiar to Mackinac Center’s readers: the overwhelming bureaucracy one inevitably finds in any large government operation, the perverse incentives – disincentives really – created by tenure, the pitfalls of monopolization, and above all the brooding omnipresence of teachers unions. Director Davis Guggenheim adds some new examples and a few details that are worth the time, but the really interesting thing about Superman is the implications for progressives, who appear to be approaching a time for making painful decisions.

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The film is worthwhile, but for this reviewer the audience reaction was every bit as interesting as what was happening on screen. As I observed in an earlier blog post, Guggenheim comes to this film with sterling progressive credentials, and he has custom made a case for reform that should appeal to those who support conventional public schools, progressives in particular. He scrupulously avoids controversies like the effects of political correctness. To the extent that he considers what subjects are taught in school he sticks to the ones where politics plays the smallest role: literacy, math and science. He also steers clear of alternatives to public schools, like vouchers and tax credits, that might open up private school options for low-income families. In this film the chief alternative to failing public schools are charter schools, which have a mixed record overall, but as Guggenheim tells the tale there are excellent schools that provide a few lucky students with a great education. How much depends on luck becomes clear at the end.

It would be unfair to treat this film as simply a union expose. Guggenheim covers a lot of ground, but he does call attention to several of the ways that teacher unions protect bad teachers and block reforms, using political muscle, tenure laws and collective bargaining. These segments drew audible gasps from a recent viewing audience that included administrators from the Detroit Public Schools, activists from Progressives for Quality Public Schools, and Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh.

The film’s emotional punch comes at the end, as parents anxiously watch a lottery that will decide whether or not their kids will get to go to a quality charter school. Of half a dozen families that Guggenheim profiles, only one makes it in on the first pass. A second manages to get in later off a waiting list. The rest are stuck in a failing system.

Progressives have long placed a high value on public education as both a means to improve the lot of the less fortunate and as a means of spreading shared values and sympathies among citizens, but they have also stressed the importance of labor unions as necessary to protect workers from what they perceive as a capricious and cut-throat marketplace. Those values have been in conflict for decades: Guggenheim shows us hidden camera footage from a Milwaukee classroom in which high-schoolers play craps while a tenured and union-protected teacher reads his newspaper; this was filmed in 1991.

Well-meaning progressives may hope that the teachers unions will embrace reforms at some point, but by now they should realize that the chances of that happening are infinitesimal. Failing that, they face a stark choice between allowing public schools to continue to fail, or confronting a teachers’ union movement that is both one of their most important creations and most generous political benefactors. Davis Guggenheim has shined a light on the progressives’ predicament. It will be interesting to see how they handle it.