David Guggenheim’s new documentary, "Waiting for Superman,” about the state of public education in America, is perhaps the most useful channeling ever of white guilt. Unfortunately, few people saw it in theaters, which makes its debut on DVD the perfect chance to correct this very major oversight.
Guggenheim, best known for the Oscar-winning climate change doc “An Inconvenient Truth,” was inspired to make this latest film when it came time to send his own kids off to school. After sizing up his local public school, he opted for sending his kid to a private institution. But every time he drove past the public school he’d shunned, he wondered if he was “Betraying the ideals I thought I lived by.”
The film follows the efforts of four families from across the country in their effort to find a quality education, a journey that leads all of them to one of the thousands of lotteries held each for the precious few spots in charter schools.
Along the way, Guggenheim shows how the massive bureaucracy built to teach our kids is actually the biggest obstacle in getting that very thing done. And as Guggenheim sees it, Public School Enemy No. 1 is the teachers unions, which Newsweek editor Jonathan Alter calls, “a menace and an impediment to reform.” (although he does point out that individual teachers are heroes without whom we can not win the battle).
The film is also a battle of Good vs. Evil, with former DC school’s Superintendent Michelle Rhee on the side of the kids, and Randi Weingarten, former head of the United Federation of Teachers and now leader of the American Federation of Teachers, as Lord Vader.
As moving and tragic as the stories of the kids are, it’s a shame that Guggenheim doesn’t focus more on the grown-ups.
“There's an unbelievable willingness to turn a blind eye to the injustices that are happening to kids every single day in our schools, in the name of harmony amongst adults,” notes Rhee.
The kids are the problem, they’re the victims.
The film presents the battle between reforms and the union as a little too black-and-white, and Guggenheim fails to turn a critical eye toward the charter school movement, which has its critics, even outside the teachers unions.
The film ends with each of the families attending their kids’ lotteries, and, man, are those tough to watch. For every named called, there are 20 to 30 kids who must shuffle back to the misery of America’s public schools.
Weingarten insists that her group's "special interest is the students we teach," and while she no doubt cares deeply about education, she stands guard over a system so intractable that only 1 in 2,500 teachers ever get fired - by comparison, 1 in 97 lawyers get disbarred.
The DVD is about as good a home-video value as one could hope for, as it comes packaged with a $25 gift card that you can allocate online to any number of different school projects.
Additionally, there are four deleted scenes that are definitely worth watching, especially one about a charter school founded in a cluster of trailers in post-Katrina New Orleans, and another about a teacher who spearheaded a coup of a Los Angeles public school that had been classified as “failing” for the previous six years.