Back Stories to Waiting for Superman

Waiting for Superman, touted by Oprah, Bill Gates and other celebrities, is now playing California theatres. Academy Award winner Davis Guggenheim directed the film, best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. Several back stories, and the star, will not be apparent on the big screen.

Waiting for Superman follows five children of different backgrounds as they try to gain admission to better-performing charter schools across the United States. That is hardly a common theme, even for a documentary. So how did the filmmakers get the idea?

The producer, it turns out, had read Not as Good as You Think, by Lance Izumi of the Pacific Research Institute, and saw the film based on the book. The theme here is that government-run schools in upscale neighborhoods may have impressive buildings but they are not delivering the goods in student achievement. Waiting for Superman includes an interview with Lance along these lines.

Not everyone loves the film. According to news reports, the National Education Association (NEA) had planned to spend $3.5 million against Waiting for Superman and other documentaries such as The Lottery, which charts the story of four New York City children trying to get into the Harlem Success Academy.

Michael Powell of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) told the Sacramento Bee that the documentaries “leave the impression that public school teachers are bad, that charter schools are a panacea and that teachers unions are responsible for failing schools.”

That impression actually has a lot of merit. Teacher unions are a huge part of the problem. AFT president Randi Weingarten told The Nation that “only seven percent of American workers are in unions. America looks at us as islands of privilege.”

Teacher unions make it difficult to fire bad teachers, which has even caused President Barack Obama to speak out. He wants to tie teacher evaluations to student achievement, which teacher unions oppose. That comes as no surprise because teacher unions stridently oppose most education reform, including merit pay and charter schools.

As PRI’s forthcoming book Short-Circuited shows, they also dislike the online learning revolution. In the union view, job security and lockstep pay raises from taxpayer dollars come before the interests of children.

Charter schools don’t have to maintain a closed union shop, and can choose teachers for ability, not seniority. In return for meeting their achievement goals, charters get freedom from many regulations. Not all charters excel, but enough are succeeding that parents nationwide want to get their children into such schools.

Meanwhile, the real star of Waiting for Superman is choice. That’s what empowers the parents and students to find better opportunities. What students across the country are really waiting for is full choice in K-12 education, as a matter of basic civil rights.

President Obama is not willing to give it to them. Indeed, he quashed a popular and successful choice program for low-income students in the nation’s capital, a move teacher unions applauded. To expand opportunity, someone else needs to step up and show leadership.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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