Last year, even as education reformers all across the country were turning cartwheels in celebration of Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” I remained skeptical. I’ve been keeping tabs on the teacher unions for years, and understand how they work hand-in-glove with the Democratic Party. Since Guggenheim is a well-known liberal (who famously directed Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”), I was certain that “Superman” would tiptoe around the destructive influence Big Labor has on the education system.
Last fall, during some down time on a business trip to New York City, I finally gave in and bought a $13 ticket at a Times Square movie theater to watch "Waiting for 'Superman.'" I was pleasantly surprised.
I’d gone in expecting Guggenheim to make excuses for the state of public education. Instead, Guggenheim grabbed the whole thing by the throat and didn't let go.
He told stories of children who were victimized by a system that puts adults first. He told of union campaign contributions that go to politicians who, in turn, act as the teacher unions’ political puppets. He showed rowdy union rallies and rubber rooms and classrooms that were out of control.
I marveled that a mainstream (liberal) movie maker was exposing the sorry state of public education and the destructive nature of the well-heeled teacher unions.
Needless to say, Guggenheim’s film did not play well with the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. They set up websites to attack his film. They dispatched high profile speakers around the country to fight back. And they cheered when Guggenheim was snubbed out of a nomination for another Oscar.
I have first-hand experience of how vicious the left’s attacks can get, so I can only imagine how they treated one of their own who had dared to step out of line.
Are these attacks the reason Guggenheim is starting to pull his punches?
In a recent conference call with film watchers, Guggenheim was asked his opinion of the goings-on in Wisconsin. Perhaps forgetting his film's content about union contracts and union priorities, he called collective bargaining an "essential principle." He even went so far as to say that he feared the "pendulum could swing too far the other way and employees could be treated the way they were in the industrial era."
The idea of a public employee in a sweat shop is laughable. This is nearly as ridiculous as the president of the Michigan Education Association recently saying it’s beginning to look like “the slave days.” If they don't like how they're being treated, they can go get a job in the private sector because things are *so* much better there.
I’m beginning to wonder if Guggenheim is just a naïve Hollywood filmmaker who thought he was doing a community service by pointing out the shortcomings of public education. Perhaps he didn’t realize that he was taking on the power base of the Democratic Party – that the toes he was stepping on are protected by steel toed boots.
“Superman” correctly identified collective bargaining as a serious problem in public education. That’s how schools get saddled with three hundred-page contracts that are chock full of provisions about salary schedules (which reward years of employment instead of effectiveness), lavish health insurance and pension benefits, sick day pay outs, paid time off to conduct union business. . . on and on it goes.
(In Michigan and Wisconsin, the teacher unions even have it written into their collectively-bargained teacher contract that the school district will buy health insurance from a company owned by the teacher union!)
Guggenheim was right to make unions the villains of his film. But now that he’s starting to backpedal about collective bargaining, he’s getting heat from the reform community. There’s a bit of a mutiny on the “Waiting for ‘Superman’” Facebook page. The comments are decidedly opposed to Guggenheim's view, with some supporters going so far as to say they'll no longer promote the film.
Perhaps they'll gravitate towards "Kids Aren't Cars," a film series that pulls no punches and shows the ugly impact collective bargaining has had on American public education.
While the cause of education reform has been around for decades, I believe it wasn't until this liberal's film came on the scene (along with the ugly state budgets) that the issue finally took center stage. Guggenheim's Frankenstein has come to life. He should be proud of that, but he’s starting to waver.
My advice for Guggenheim: re-watch your film and don't go wobbly on us now.
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