By Mike Coffman
The film “Waiting for Superman,” directed by Davis Guggenheim and produced by Lesley Chilcott, is a documentary that analyzes the failures of American public education by following several students through the system. The documentary is a clear indictment of many of our nation’s urban public schools, which are labeled in the film as “dropout factories” because, on average, 40 percent of their students fail to graduate.
It would be hard to label Guggenheim as a right-wing conservative, since he previously directed another documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” that championed former Vice President Al Gore’s thesis about the impending perils of global warming.
His latest documentary sheds a harsh light on these mostly urban schools and examines the myth that poor children are the problem and not these union-dominated, bureaucratic school districts.
The film also debunks the myth that the amount of funding for public education is directly proportional to student achievement, because the District of Columbia and New Jersey respectively have the two highest per-pupil funding levels nationally while they also share in the distinction of having the lowest achievement scores on standardized tests.
The movie places most of the blame at the feet of powerful teachers unions that have a chokehold on the political process and leverage their power to stifle innovation and reward poorly performing teachers with everlasting job security.
One part of the documentary describes a ritual in these underperforming schools called the “dance of the lemons.” It begins at the end of every school year with the transfer of poorly performing teachers from one school to another. Each principal prays the teachers received are not as bad as the ones transferred. This dance of the lemons is done in lieu of firing bad teachers because their union contracts protect them, irrespective of how bad they are in the classroom, by making the disciplinary processes mind-numbingly difficult to administer and as legally cumbersome as is humanly possible.
The documentary closes with a focus on charter schools, public schools that have been released from the stifling bondage of union contracts, as the solution. It gives real-life examples of how charter schools can free up the creative energies necessary to educate all children.
The last scenes of the documentary dramatized the emotional desperation of parents and their children anxiously waiting for their numbers to be called at lotteries designed to ration the limited number of openings at these sought-after schools. These families are forced to play in a game of chance and bet whether their children will have a future or be forced to return to the same broken schools that will condemn yet another generation to a culture of poverty where there is no hope for them.
I cheered for the lucky winners and felt terrible for those who lost.
Early last year in Congress, a little-known legislative provision was buried inside a much larger bill passed at the request of the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association. The purpose of the amendment was to put a stop to a program that allowed poor children to escape the gang-infested schools of inner-city Washington, D.C., for private schools where they could receive an education at a fraction of the cost to the taxpayers.
The politically powerful union won, the legislation passed, but the debate over school choice in public education is just beginning, and I predict it will be the leading civil rights struggle of this decade and that, at the end, freedom will prevail.
U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican, represents Colorado’s 6th Congressional District.