Where’s superman for the middle class?

The documentary “Waiting for Superman” by Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim, who previously directed Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” was a big hit at the recent Sundance Film Festival.

Voted best U.S. documentary by Sundance moviegoers, Guggenheim’s film exposes the immense flaws in America’s public school system and follows the lives of a handful of parents and their children who struggle to find alternative routes to a better education. Significantly, Guggenheim profiles both low-income and middle-class children.

The title of Guggenheim’s latest film comes from an African American educator who recounts how, as a child, he would wait for his hero, Superman, to come and solve the problems around him. In too many of America’s public schools, that wait continues. These schools are either dangerous, underperforming or both.

Half of students tested in California scored below proficient on the state English exam. Guggenheim points out that bad schools and bad schooling affect more than just poor kids.

“The revelation is that a lot of our schools, even our middle-class and our white schools, are suffering from the same dysfunction (as schools in low-income areas),” Guggenheim warns. The evidence bears him out.

A recent study by the Pacific Research Institute found hundreds of California public schools in middle-class and affluent neighborhoods where significant proportions of students failed to achieve grade-level proficiency in core subjects. Many parents at these schools don’t realize how bad things are.

“My entire extended family has gone through (Terra Nova), and everyone has been extremely happy with it,” says a parent at Terra Nova High School in Pacifica. In an area with a median home price around $530,000, Terra Nova has a white-majority student population with virtually no students not fluent in English and only about 2 in 10 who are disadvantaged.

Yet half of 11th-graders failed to achieve proficiency on the state English exam, and a shocking 83 percent of juniors scored “not ready for college English” on the California State University’s college-readiness exam. In math, 54 percent of students taking the state’s summative math exam for accelerated students failed to achieve proficiency, while 80 percent of those taking the algebra 2 exam failed to reach proficiency.

While some middle-class parents are unaware of the deficiencies at their children’s public schools, others know too well their neighborhood school’s shortcomings. Actress Laraine Newman, of “Saturday Night Live” fame, recently wrote on the Huffington Post that she and her husband “could no longer afford to pay for private school and expect to pay for a college education” for her children. However, at her neighborhood public school, University High in Los Angeles, about 70 percent of 11th-graders failed to hit proficiency on the state English exam, and a staggering 95 percent of students taking the geometry and algebra 2 exams scored below proficient. “(F)rankly, the school was low performing,” Newman wrote.

Luckily for her, Newman qualified for a special permit to send her daughter to a high school in ultra-wealthy Beverly Hills. Most other middle-class parents aren’t so fortunate, which is why Sweden’s universal school-choice voucher program is so appealing. Funding is attached to every Swedish child and may be used at the public or private independent school of the parents choosing.

“Choice is for everyone, whatever income level you have,” says Per Unckel, governor of Stockholm County and a former education minister. Further, he observes, “It is not only a school-choice program which opens up choice for kids, it’s also a choice program that opens up competition between schools for the benefit of quality.”

Davis Guggenheim comments: “Every morning I drive my kids past four public schools on the way to a private school, and when I drive past those schools it haunts me, the fact that there aren’t good schools for my kids.” If this reality haunts the Sundance documentary winner, it’s surely like a horror movie for those who can’t escape from those bad public schools.

Lance T. Izumi is Koret senior fellow and senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute ( https://www.pacificresearch.org//). He is the co-author of the recent PRI study “Still Not as Good as You Think: 2009 Update on Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice.” Send your feedback to us through our online form at SFGate.com/chronicle/submissions/#1.

This article appeared on page F – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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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