New documentary showcases the problems of one O.C. school district.
The Capistrano Unified School District is portrayed in a new, 49-minute documentary film as a case study in what is wrong with the American public school system and how politics, misplaced priorities and lack of oversight can derail what should otherwise be a successful institution.
“Not as Good as You Think: The Myth of the Middle Class School” prominently features a five-year effort by the CUSD Recall Committee parents group to bring reforms to a school district plagued by scandal, community unrest and allegations of corruption reaching into the highest levels of its administration.
The documentary, produced by the San Francisco think-tank Pacific Research Institute, made its Orange County debut Wednesday night for an audience of about 200 people at the St. Regis Hotel in Dana Point.
“There were some really interesting human stories – student safety, corruption, stewardship of taxpayers’ money,” said the film’s co-executive producer, Lance Izumi, director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute. “The stories here (in Capistrano Unified) were the most compelling, so that’s how they became the focus of the film.”
The filmmakers also traveled to Nashville, Tenn., to profile a family’s unhappiness with local public schools, to Sweden to examine that country’s school voucher system, and to Oakland to chronicle the turnaround of an inner-city charter school.
“Status quo relies on complacency … allowing a broken system to continue failing generations and generations of kids,” the documentary’s narrator says during the film.
FILM FOCUSES ON CAPO
Nearly a third of the documentary is devoted to detailing the problems that have plagued Capistrano Unified for five years. The 52,000-student district, headquartered in San Juan Capistrano, is the only Orange County school district featured in the film.
The filmmakers highlight the much-criticized construction of Capistrano’s sprawling district office building, the grand jury indictment of a former superintendent, and the unpopular decision to build a high school on a hilly site bordered by high-voltage transmission lines, landfills and a high-pressure gasoline pipeline.
The goal of the documentary, the filmmakers said, is to show that the U.S. public school system is broken, even in middle-class neighborhoods.
“Middle-class parents are under the impression that if they spend money on a good house in a good neighborhood, their kids will get a good education,” director Nick Tucker said. “That’s simply not true.”
The filmmakers also sought to highlight the need for sweeping reforms, including expansion of charter schools and school choice.
School choice is the controversial movement in public education that essentially gives parents of a school district the option to send their children to private school, using the money the district would have spent on their public school education.
SCHOOL CHOICE BIAS
The Pacific Research Institute, described by its president Wednesday as “a free-market think-tank in the heart of liberal San Francisco,” is a strong proponent of school choice.
In the institute’s 2007 book “Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice” – the basis for the documentary – problems in districts like Capistrano Unified are cited to build a case for why school vouchers are needed.
“While the Capistrano parents spent years fruitlessly trying to reform their school system through the political process, they could have delivered a quick and effective blow to their antagonists if they had a real school-choice option such as a voucher,” the book’s authors wrote.
The Capistrano Unified parents interviewed in the film said they weren’t bothered by the documentary’s political slant or how it portrayed the district.
“They are well-respected, competent individuals,” said CUSD Recall Committee leader Tony Beall, a Rancho Santa Margarita city councilman. “I’m thrilled that our reform movement is making a national impact.”
Added Capistrano Unified parent and activist Barbara Casserly of Mission Viejo: “This is a story that absolutely needs to be told.”
POLITICAL SLANT CRITICIZED
But other parents said the filmmakers appeared intent on painting the district in an unfair, inaccurate light to further a political agenda.
“They are trying to adequately represent the district by interviewing a handful of parents, which is, of course, a farce,” San Juan Capistrano parent Erin Kutnick, an outspoken critic of Capistrano’s “reform” movement, said after watching the film’s trailer. “You cannot even begin to get a decent cross section with this.”
All seven Capistrano Unified parents who appear in the film are closely aligned with – or leaders of – the district’s “reform” movement. No dissenting voices are represented.
Also noteworthy is the fact that Capistrano’s “reform” leaders have been heavily criticized for their perceived support of school vouchers.
The “reform” movement has accepted at least $40,000 in political campaign contributions over the past few years from the Education Alliance, a Tustin-based political action committee that, among other things, strongly supports school choice and school vouchers.
“Not as Good as You Think” was filmed over about a six-month period beginning last summer, said director Nick Tucker. More than 100 hours of footage were shot; the total cost of the film was about $175,000.
The Pacific Research Institute plans to sell DVDs of “Not as Good as You Think” for $20 each beginning late next week. The filmmakers also are in talks with a television network to air the documentary nationwide, said institute President Sally Pipes.
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