by Risa Green
I saw Waiting for Superman over the weekend, which, if you don’t know, is a documentary about the deplorable state of public schools in America. Aside from telling us what we already know – that many public schools in America are in a deplorable state – the filmmakers do a great job of explaining why they’re that way, and how they got that way.
What surprised me the most is that it’s not about a lack of funds. There’s actually a lot of money out there for public education. The problem, they tell us, is a lack of good teachers, and unions that care more about protecting their members than they do about educating kids. What it requires – and what it costs – to fire a teacher is, frankly, obscene. In New York, teachers who have behaved criminally in the classroom – criminally, as in sexually abusing students – get paid their full salary and benefits to sit in a room and read magazines while they wait for a hearing, which on average can take three years to happen. Oh, and by the way, at a cost of a hundred million dollars a year. And that’s just for the teachers who are criminals. The ones who just suck get to keep on teaching, because the teachers unions have negotiated contracts that make it nearly impossible to get rid of them.
Now, let me say this: my mother was a public school teacher and a member of the NEA, and she participated in her fair share of strikes and picket lines. She also worked for some horrible principals who wouldn’t have hesitated to fire anyone who disagreed with them, and the only reason she was ever able to go over their heads and make complaints to the superintendant was because she was protected by her union contract. So I get it. There are a lot of politics in public schools, and teachers do need protection if they find themselves on the wrong side of a principal with an agenda. But at the same time, they shouldn’t be bulletproof. There needs to be a middle ground that allows for principals to get rid of fundamentally bad teachers. There needs to be a reworking of the tenure system in American public schools. It’s a big, hot button issue that a lot of states are struggling with right now, especially with midterm elections coming up. Nobody wants to piss off the teachers unions in an election year. But if you see this movie, you’ll realize that we have no other choice.
What is brilliant about Waiting for Superman is that they don’t make it abstract. They introduce you to five students and their families, all of whom attend underperforming schools, all of whom are desperate to get out of them. (There’s even one suburban student who goes to what’s considered a good public school, except that half the kids who graduate need to take remedial courses in college before they’re allowed to move to on to regular ones). These are good, motivated, smart kids who were born into crappy circumstances, and your heart breaks for their parents and grandparents who just want better for them, no matter what it takes. The filmmakers then show us the beacons of hope: public, neighborhood charter schools with caring, dynamic teachers and systems in place to make sure that nobody falls through the cracks, as well as the test scores and the college placements to back it all up. The only problem is, there aren’t enough spots for all of the kids who want to go to them.
So you watch as these five smart, motivated kids sit in five different auditoriums around the country, their little fingers crossed for good luck, clutching the random number they’ve been given as if it holds the key to their freedom, which, of course, it does. You watch as the principals of these great schools pick balls out of a metal cage and begin calling out the numbers of the lucky ones who will get a quality education and therefore a better life, and you watch the tears of the unlucky ones who will be sent back to schools where teachers put their feet up on the desk and read the newspaper because they’re getting paid whether the kids learn or not. And you cry, because it’s so sad, and because it’s so frustrating and outrageous that in the United States of America, this is the best we can do for our children.
As a citizen, I’m disgusted. As a parent, I’m offended. But what can anyone do? Well, at the end of the movie they tell you what you can do. You can text the word “Possible” to 77177. You can write to your state and local representatives, demanding that they do better. You can find out who is running for school superintendant, and next week, you can vote for the candidate who is more likely to stand up to the unions and make a change. You can even sign up to become a tutor to students who go to failing schools in your area. You can see the movie. And you can go to www.waitingforsuperman.com  to find out more.
Elsewhere on Mommy Tracked: Meredith O'Brien on Waiting for Superman