It's hard to know what to expect when an avowed liberal takes on the controversial issue of school choice. Director Davis Guggenheim is the director behind "An Inconvenient Truth," the global warming film that lionized Al Gore. Guggenheim also directed the Barack Obama biographical film played at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and the Obama infomercial that aired on television during the 2008 presidential campaign. His liberal bona fides are stellar. So it's only natural to anticipate a school choice documentary that defends the status quo and toes the party line blaming lack of funding for the woeful state of America’s government education system.
Prepare to be surprised.
In the opening moments of the film, Guggenheim freely admits that he betrays his liberal beliefs every day when he drives past three public schools on his way to drop off his children at their private school. His children's education is so important, he's unwilling to risk their future success on the abysmal education record of government schools. It’s a refreshingly honest admission and the rest of the film follows suit.
"Waiting for Superman" is an objective assessment of the deplorable state of modern American education and the culprits behind it. Both sides of the political spectrum can agree with the assessment; fingering culprits is the source of the political divide.
Amazingly, Guggenheim lays most of the blame at the doorstep of the teachers unions. He even mentions that they are among the largest political donors in the country and the recipients of over 90 percent of their political donations are Democrats.
The most compelling aspect of the film is not that it unmasks teachers unions, rather it's the heart-wrenching stories of the five young students whose stories are interwoven throughout the film's exploration of the school system. Personalizing the statistics thrown around in the political debate makes it much harder for those opposed to change to make any emotional appeal.
For who can look into the sweet, earnest eyes of Daisy, a young Latina in Los Angeles, who wants to be a doctor or veterinarian, and honestly say that she's better off in the failing school she's destined to attend, rather than give her every opportunity to succeed?
Or who can harden their heart against young Anthony, caught in the worst school system in the nation: Washington, D.C.?
The entrapment in a failing system doesn’t just affect the economically disadvantaged. Emily, who comes from a more affluent neighborhood, is stuck in a school that "tracks" students, putting children considered less bright on a lower academic track, while the more intelligent students are exposed to greater education opportunities.
As "Waiting for Superman" details, teachers unions are more than willing to leave these young, hopeful scholars in a system that robs them of their potential just to protect lazy teachers and bureaucrats more interested in an easy paycheck.
And that is the most devastating verdict of the film. Adult teachers, whose unions crow about how much they care for "the children," have placed their own selfish interests above the needs of their very own posterity. The crestfallen, devastated looks of the children and their parents in this film should evoke outrage at what the unions are directly responsible for. They have created and enabled this failed system. Every tear and every lost dream falls squarely at their doorstep.
School choice is an issue where conservatives and liberals have the opportunity to unite and make a difference. If there are enough Davis Guggenheims out there—men and women who can set aside preconceived political notions and objectively look at a problem—there is immense hope for reforming the broken school system.
The pushback will be fierce. As shown in the film, Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system, had many innovative ideas for turning around the nation's worst school system. But she was repeatedly stymied in her attempts at reform by the powerful teachers unions. In fact, teachers weren’t even permitted by their leadership to vote on Rhee's proposals for performance-based salaries.
Teachers unions were somewhat concerned by the fact their core political supporters seem to be jumping ship. Last week the Sacramento Bee reported the National Education Association (NEA) actually considered spending $3.5 million to counter the "anti-teacher union documentaries." But the union ultimately decided against such an expenditure since the films are merely "a blip." According to NEA executive director John Wilson, the films "will come and go, but the union will still be there, our members will still be in these schools." It is that kind of insolence that has enabled the status quo.
The unions arrogantly believe that nothing can really threaten their chokehold on the education system. But the political allies that have given them cover for so long may finally be waking up to realize they have desperately failed the very children they claim to put first.
The title of the film is derived from a story told by one of its subjects, Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children's Zone. Canada explained that when he was young he waited for Superman to come save his family from their impoverished life. But much to his disappointment, he was told that Superman doesn't exist. It was a devastating revelation, understanding that there was no one powerful enough to save him from a future lacking opportunity.
But Canada is making a huge difference in the lives of children by ensuring they receive a solid education. That makes Canada and every other educator who stands up to the status quo and teachers unions a real-life superman. It’s time for teachers to rise up against their union leadership and be the supermen and superwomen that their students need.