CELEBUCATOR Canada (left) at work.
The documentary Waiting for "Superman" opens this week — an ambitious film that aims to bring the debate over education reform into every household.
And as if on cue, the doc debuts just as Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty's failure to win re-election illuminates the drama — and difficulty — of overhauling our faltering public schools.
Fenty, a "post-racial" black politician in the mold of President Obama, lost over 80 percent of the black vote to challenger Vincent Gray. And observers pin much of the blame for his loss on the appointment of Michelle Rhee, then a 37-year-old with little teaching experience, as the chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools.
In her stormy tenure, Rhee has shuttered several failing schools, fired personnel she deemed ineffectual without much discussion, and pressed to renegotiate a teachers' union contract long considered inviolate. In short, she has made people uncomfortable.
Rhee is one of the reformers featured in Waiting for "Superman," which depicts her as a tenacious burn-all-as-long-as-it-benefits-the-children workaholic. And the film is just the latest burst of media attention turning Rhee and fellow Waiting for "Superman" star Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone into celebucators.
It is a phenomenon we have experienced, in lesser measure, in Rhode Island, where hard-charging Education Commissioner Deborah Gist — who once worked alongside Rhee in Washington — has become something of a media darling.
But public acclaim, it seems, does not mean invincibility. Here, gubernatorial candidate Lincoln Chafee has raised questions about Gist's approach. And Rhee's future in the D.C. school system, with Gray coming into office, does not look to be a long one. After all, it was the backlash against Rhee that got Gray elected — with an implied mandate that he remove the thorn.
Still, many proponents of education reform, including Davis Guggenheim, the film's director, think Rhee needs more time to let her changes take hold and prove their potential. "I have spent a lot of time in the schools in D.C.," said Guggenheim in an interview with the Phoenix, "and there is no doubt in my mind that what she was doing is transformative. Her leaving would be like turning off the lights in the middle of heart surgery."
One of the motivations for the film was Guggenheim's own educational experience in D.C. "I asked my mom why I was bussed all the way over to Virginia to go to school, and she said, 'because the schools are broken.' Forty years later and I drive my kids past public schools [to go to private ones] because they are broken."
Guggenheim, who won an Academy Award for the global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth, cites red tape, conflicting agendas, and the teacher union contracts as the roots of the problem.
But say what you will about the forces behind our schools' failures — bigger demons beyond the system's control like poverty and family dissolution also come to mind — the stories of the kids let down by the system are the most compelling impetus to change.
Indeed, the true charm of "Superman" lies in the wide-eyed hopes of various children in D.C., New York, and Los Angeles tracked by Guggenheim as they wait on the results of charter school admission lotteries. "It's the only fair way to do an unfair thing," quips the director. The end result, which — as the film has it — will all but seal the children's fate, is bittersweet and harrowing in ways you would not expect.