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Four years ago director Davis Guggenheim put more than a few conservative noses out of joint with his Oscar-winning global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. This year, he may do the same to liberals with Waiting for "Superman," a scathing look at the U.S. public-school system and those who stand in the way of reforming it.
The stakes Guggenheim lays out are stark. Decent-paying factory and manufacturing jobs are no longer a certainty; in fact, they're not even a probability. American students' math, science, and reading scores are pitiful-yet U.S. pupils are first in the world in how good they feel about their abilities. Unless something radically changes in our education system, today's kids will be in for a rude awakening when they discover they're not qualified to fill the jobs of tomorrow's global economy.
How did we get to this point? It's not for lack of spending or legislation. We spend more per pupil than almost any other industrialized nation, and each administration ushers in some new education program. With painful specificity, Guggenheim points out that the real culprit is suffocating bureaucracy and those who have a stake in making sure every inch of red tape stays put.
Waiting for "Superman" (rated PG) is sure to get people talking when it rolls out to theaters throughout September and October. And viewers will no doubt argue about some of the solutions Guggenheim presents (for example, he seems to support greater federalization). But his major accomplishment is in making it impossible to ignore who's responsible for educational gridlock. Every attempt the reformers he highlights make to improve, streamline, or overhaul the system runs up against the same brick wall: the teachers unions and the politicians who owe enormous amounts of campaign dollars to them.
After only a year or two, public-school educators earn tenure and Guggenheim proves how Herculean a task it is for a district to fire any teacher once that milestone has been achieved. When a Chicago teacher is fired after a student takes video of him spending classroom time reading the paper, his union reps intercede and he wins his job back-with back pay. In New York, teachers under disciplinary review for sexual and/or physical misconduct sit in the "rubber room," a building where they play cards, read, and chat while continuing to draw a salary, sometimes for years. And when someone like District of Columbia superintendent Michelle Rhee tries to buck the system by offering her teachers dramatic merit-based pay increases in exchange for forgoing tenure, the union refuses to put her proposal to a vote.
Where Guggenheim excels is in allowing opposition figures to respond, and with words that condemn them further. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten comes off calculating and dishonest in trying to defend her organization.
Despite his previous collaboration with Al Gore, Guggenheim doesn't hold back politically here: The two major teachers unions are the Democratic Party's largest contributors. But while tracing the money trail is the head of this film, its heart is the families we meet who are hurt by the status quo. The children Guggenheim follows are being cheated out of bright futures right now. Watching families go up against casino-like odds to apply for enrollment in innovative charter schools makes Waiting for "Superman" more than a dry lesson in our nation's education woes. It makes it a heart-wrenching true story about what adult special interests are costing our children.