BY JOE TYRRELL
With its ability to unite limousine liberals and divine-right conservatives, Davis Guggenheim's education documentary "Waiting for Superman" is particularly timely for New Jersey.
The movie's version of a heroine, Michelle Rhee, is doing an elaborate dance with Gov. Chris Christie, who needs a high-profile replacement for his ousted education Commissioner Bret Schundler.
Having just taken a high dive out the window of her former job as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, Rhee is available. She already has Oprah Winfrey's endorsement for Newark school superintendent, but news reports say Rhee is uninterested in a merely lateral move.
Rhee's sudden arrival on the scene in Washington, and her heads-must-roll interactions with teachers and parents, are one of the plots running through Guggenheim's look at the state of education in the United States.
If the name sounds familiar, it was Guggenheim who turned Al Gore's powerpoint presentation into the Oscar-winning "An Inconvenient Truth." He has a high-minded agenda here as well: education in America is in dire straights and needs saving.
Guggenheim knows that because, as he illustrates at the beginning of "Waiting for Superman, he daily drives past three public schools to safely deliver his own kids to a private school.
"Waiting for Superman" tracks photogenic youngsters of several racial and ethnic backgrounds, plus their hard-working parents or grandparents, through challenges at schools in primarily poor, urban neighborhoods.
The title comes from Harlem educator and activist Geoffrey Canada's childhood dream that "Superman would come and rescue us." All of the youngsters are compelling, and most face difficult personal circumstances, from a father dead from drugs to a mother falling behind on tuition for a parochial school.
In political circles, "Waiting for Superman" has inspired adulation and outrage for its sotte voce suggestion that superheroes have arrived in the persons of Rhee and Canada, and for its more blatant attack on teachers' unions.
This movie's Lex Luthor is Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, shown rallying her members because no footage was available of her tying children to railroad tracks.
But all that is beside the point. As "Waiting for Superman" plays out, its politics — a sprinkling of selected data stirred into a healthy dose of agit-prop — become steadily less convincing. Instead, the children lead the way.
Yes, the AFT's D.C. branch initially rejected Rhee's plan to do away with teacher tenure. She's shown looking dismayed at a fractious meeting. Not shown: the union subsequently accepted a contract eliminating tenure for one year, leading to widespread firings, and then to reshape the process.
Also not shown, Rhee's predecessor in Washington, Clifford Janney, removed even more teachers, creating more openings than the district could easily fill. Janney is Newark's current lame-duck superintendent, getting the boot from the Christie-Booker-Zuckerberg regime.
Yes, Rhee fired a number of principals, "including the principal of her own children's school," as the movie trumpets. Not mentioned, principal Marta Guzman had turned Oyster-Adams Bilingual Elementary into one of the district's top performers, a National Blue-Ribbon School. The genesis of her firing apparently was a private dinner party Rhee attended at the home of white parents.
A broader spectrum of parents, and even city council members, had no luck finding out how such decisions were made. "I'm not going to pretend to solicit your advice so you'll feel involved, because that's just fake," Rhee told Time magazine.
Although it's certainly not his intention, Guggenheim's camera makes it obvious that the problems facing the kids and their neighborhoods go beyond the schools.
Daisy, a fifth-grader, lives with her immigrant parents in a poor section of Los Angeles. Her father is unemployed. Her mother, who speaks only Spanish, is a hospital janitor. Yet Daisy tells Guggenheim she wants to be a doctor, a nurse or a veterinarian.
When he asks how she made those choices, Daisy says she learned about them by "reading books in the library." That's bad news for kids in Newark and other places where municipal and school libraries are being cut.
One thing Daisy has not heard about, until Guggenheim mentions it, is the lottery to get into a highly regarded charter school. The last reel takes us to some of those public lotteries, where numerous children and parents anxiously await to see if the bouncing balls will give them one of the too-few spots.
Ostensibly a way to ensure the process is open, such lotteries are more of a marketing tool, ratcheting up the hype for charter operators and providing great visuals for documentarians. As for the downtrodden communities, they also ensure that majorities will see their hopes publicly deflated while a handful celebrate. So what else is new?
The problem is that charter schools need help just as much as traditional schools. In general, charter operators have made a laudable effort, with a high proportion serving those poor urban areas that need help. But compared to traditional public schools, more charters fall short than do better.
Some charters succeed, like the Knowledge is Power Program institutions referenced in the movie. Many do not. Many in urban areas cherry-pick students, enrolling fewer classified, poor or children with disabilities than their neighborhood schools.
Last year's report by Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, covering 16 states, found that among black and Hispanic students, those in charters do "significantly worse" than those in traditional schools.
Meanwhile, miffed that D.C. voters had the temerity to vote against her similarly high-handed patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, Rhee quickly bailed on her job there. She's doubtless looking for another autocratic sponsor who will encourage her to impose "reforms" without transparency or accountability.
While the adults are unreliable, the children remain ready and willing. If "Waiting for Superman" sparks more interest in actual students like smart, determined Daisy and her classmates, it could prepare the way for a more serious analysis of what works for American schoolchildren. No one has all the answers, but as the movie shows, the children are worthy of the questions.