'Waiting for Superman" is the third theatrical documentary this year to promote charter schools as a solution to a purported crisis in public education. Unlike "The Lottery" and "The Cartel," this documentary has the benefit of an Oscar-winning director (Davis Guggenheim of "An Inconvenient Truth") and a major studio's promotional campaign.
Because it mostly focuses on kids, it's an emotionally compelling film that is likely to influence the public debate. But I'm compelled to be the class contrarian and point out that the numbers on the chalkboard don't add up.
Grade-school kids like fatherless Anthony in Washington and photogenic Daisy in Los Angeles aren't statistics. We can't help sympathizing with them and their hard-working parents for wanting to escape from the decrepit public schools in their neighborhoods by winning admission to a charter academy.
But: Instead of scrutinizing the income and tax-base inequities that perpetuate poverty in America, Guggenheim maintains that bad schools produce bad neighborhoods, rather than the other way around. He blames bad schools on bad teachers. And he blames bad teachers on bad unions.
If it's true that the powerful teachers unions make it impossible to fire incompetent teachers after they are granted tenure, Guggenheim doesn't tell us what percentage of teachers fall into that category. Nor does he spend much time showing us that public-school teaching is hard work for relatively low pay in overcrowded classrooms full of kids whose discipline problems are exacerbated by their indifferent parents.
By almost any measure, teachers are heroes; but in this movie, the teachers and administrators of nonunion charter schools are superheroes. The enthusiasm of an educator like Geoffrey Canada in Harlem is infectious, and almost all of the kids who attend his school and follow its rules are accepted into college. Thus we cheer and cry as the kids whom Guggenheim follows participate in lotteries for the limited spots in prestigious charter schools.
Yet in Guggenheim's graphics and factoids, a footnote flies past us like a spitball: Only one in five charter schools achieve excellent results. And he doesn't mention that many — if not most — charters underperform compared with public schools.
So why is a charter panacea being touted louder than tenure reform or longer school days?
"Waiting for Superman" raises important questions while wearing a big red heart on its chest, but inconvenient facts are its kryptonite.