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Debate-igniting ‘Waiting for Superman’ to open here Friday

On Friday, a documentary about the efforts of five families to get their kids into decent schools will open at the Uptown Theatre in Minneapolis.

I know what you’re thinking: A two-hour film about education — it’ll probably play to crowds of seven or eight and close after a single weekend, right? Wrong.

“Waiting for Superman” is the work of Davis Guggenheim, the man who made the Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth.” And if the controversy it has ignited on the blogosphere is any kind of predictor, it just might make the crisis in public education this country’s next cause célèbre.

Last week, Oprah Winfrey devoted two full episodes of her show to previewing the film. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared on the second to announce he’s donating $100 million to schools in Newark, N.J. (Perhaps motivated in part by the opening of another film, this one critical of the social-networking wunderkind?)

Closer to home, Target, long a staunch literacy supporter, Friday announced it is doubling its charitable spending on education to an unprecedented $500 million over the next five years.

Facebooking like crazy
Local education advocates, policymakers and — gasp — rank-and-file parents are Facebooking like crazy. Some are making plans to meet up to attend one the first few showings, but others are outraged. There is, it seems, more than enough inconvenient truthiness to go around.

“Superman” lands hard on teachers’ unions, and word is that Minneapolis Federation of Teachers members plan to take to the sidewalk outside the theater Friday to hand out leaflets decrying their supposed vilification. Several have also agreed to attend a community forum Minneapolis School Board candidate Chanda Smith Baker will host down the street, at Bar Abilene.

The first movie acquired at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Superman” follows five kids, four of them poor minorities, in Los Angeles; New York; Washington, D.C.; and Palo Alto, Calif., as their parents try, quite literally via lottery, to win places for them in high-achieving charter schools. 

“It’s gonna grab people much deeper than ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ because watching ice caps melt doesn’t have the human quality of watching these kids being denied something you know will change their lives,” New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein told New York magazine, which published an engrossing story exploring the film’s controversies.

“It grabs at you,” Klein said. “It should grab at you. Those kids are dying.”

At the same time, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has called the movie, which casts her as villainess-in-chief, as “misleading” and “dangerous.”

Nixon-to-China element?
I don’t know about Weingarten. New York credits her with pushing many of the reforms the film calls for and suggests that there’s a Nixon-goes-to-China element to her opposition to the film. And I’ve heard from Minneapolis School Board member Chris Stewart, who has seen the film, that teachers should keep an open mind and buy a ticket.

That might be true, but I can’t let that it go without pointing out the inconvenient truth that flashed through my mind when I heard teachers were planning to leaflet. Minneapolis and St. Paul are blessed with teachers’ federations that have long been at the forefront in terms of progressive unionism.

Despite their mutual commitment to reform, the MFT and Minneapolis Public Schools have been at an impasse in terms of negotiating a new contract for a year. Indeed, they may never ink a contract for the current cycle. A state-appointed arbiter ruled that the previous contract is still in place, there’s little reason to resume talks until next spring, when negotiations for the next cycle are supposed to begin.

Merit pay is at the heart of the dispute. Several years ago, MFT members signed on to Q-Comp, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s controversial merit pay program, but have yet to be paid $4.6 million in performance incentives they should have received in 2008 and 2009.

To be perfectly clear: Teachers have not been paid in full for work performed two years ago.

In past, MPS dipped into own coffers
District brass say they paid out all of the Q-Comp money Minneapolis got from the state, which is all they were contractually obligated to. In years past, MPS had dipped into its own coffers to make up performance pay shortfalls, but given the frequency with which the governor has balanced the state’s books by borrowing from schools of late, they say they can’t afford to do that now.

MFT doesn’t buy it; a state-appointed arbiter is expected to rule on the question later this week. Whatever the decision, it’s exactly the sort of pickle unions exist to guard against. And the sort of internecine nastiness critics of “Superman” say the movie oversimplifies.

The documentarian’s reply to this: “Any film is a simplification,” Guggenheim told the New York Times. “I know the inside-baseball people in education will criticize it. I was always saying to myself: ‘Davis, you’re not an education expert. Tell the story from the point of view of a kid trying to find a good school.’ ” 

From the point of view of those kids, it’s a good thing Friday’s premiere is more likely to fuel the debate than to quell it.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/27/2010 - 09:36 am.

    I’m looking forward to seeing it – and hoping it plays somewhere else, eventually, besides the decrepit Uptown auditorium. I’ve already read commentary from the left that the film is basically half-truths and deception, while public education and teacher’s organizations have been the whipping boys of right-wingers for many years, including some who are regular readers and responders to MinnPost.

    So, it’s going to be interesting.

    I was a very good high school teacher for most of my 30 classroom years (few, indeed, are very good their first couple years, where reality meets both misplaced idealism and the college lecture), but I worked in an inner-ring suburban district with modest, but adequate, resources, and the vast majority of my students were English-speaking. I’ve also been out of the classroom for more than a decade, and the number and level of cultural and electronic distractions for children has multiplied almost exponentially since I retired. What I’ve read suggests that the film focuses more on kids in genuinely urban environments, which present different issues than the suburbs, and on elementary school-aged children, which also present different challenges than teens.

    My teacher’s organization protected me from harassment by an overtly hostile school board member, but I also shared a faculty room with at least a few people who should never have been teachers. If the film focuses on trying to get kids into charter schools, then it displays a certain bias from the very beginning.

    In any case, I’ll be interested in what the movie has to say.

  2. Submitted by Joseph Skar on 09/28/2010 - 07:23 am.

    What is progressive unionism? Union dues are levied only on the highest income earners.

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