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Schools: The Disaster Movie

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Davis Guggenheim also directed An Inconvenient Truth.  

Guggenheim knew whereof he spoke. The son of legendary documentarian Charles Guggenheim and an accomplished director of fiction (Deadwood, 24, NYPD Blue) and nonfiction (It Might Get Loud, the Barack Obama biographical short at the 2008 Democratic convention), he had already made an education documentary. Entitled The First Year, the film followed five public-school teachers during their initiation to the classroomand was consigned to irrelevance when it made its debut on PBS five days before 9/11. But even had the timing been less miserable, Guggenheim believes that The First Year had no chance to have much impact. It was vérité, as pure as it gets, but it preached to the choir, he says.

What caused him to reconsider taking another run at the topic was the experience of driving his children to school in Venice, California. At 46, Guggenheim is an unrepentant liberal and supporter of the public schools. And yet here he was, passing three of them every day on his way to the private institution that his kids attend, betraying the ideals I thought I lived by, as he puts it in Superman.

This cascade of lefty-yuppie guilt led to Guggenheim’s first epiphany: to put himself in the film as its narrator, which would let the piece take, he says, the tone of an op-ed. His second was to make in effect two separate movies, welding them together only at the last minute. Movie No. 1 would be the story of the kids and the charter-school lotteries, while Movie No. 2 would deal with what Guggenheim calls the folly of the adultsfrom the parade of presidents of both parties pledging fundamental change but delivering none, to the administrators shuffling bad teachers from school to school, to the union bosses chanting It’s all about the kids while working feverishly to protect their members’ every contractual right and privilege.

I would compare it to the muckraking of the early-twentieth century, says former New York City Council member and current Harlem and Bronx charter-school operator Eva Moskowitz. But the thing that distinguishes this film from a simple exposé is that it gets at the political underpinnings of why we’re in the crisis that we’re in.

In the run-up to Superman ’s release, however, it’s precisely the political dimensions of the film that have been causing unending angst for Guggenheim. Here’s what I’m scared of: that the movie will be misperceived as a pro-charter, anti-union piece, he says. The movie isn’t anti-union; it’s pro-kids. And to be pro-kids, I have to be tough on all of the adults, starting with myself. And the movie’s not pro-charter. It’s just that lotteries happen at a lot of charter schools, and the lottery is the central metaphor in the movie. It’s like, you could have the American Dreamif you win the lottery. The lottery is a metaphor for what we do to our kids.

For the combatants in the war over the future of education, of course, charter schools are more than that: They are among the conflict’s most brutal battlefields. Publicly funded but autonomously operated, accountable for results but largely free of government oversight and entirely free of union rules such as lockstep pay and lifetime teacher tenure, charters now serve more than 1.5 million students across the country. To reformers such as Duncan and Klein, they hold fantastic promise: of empowering principals, slicing through red tape, creating competition for mainstream public schools. But to critics, charters are a chimeraa faddish panacea that represents much of what’s wrong with Superman and the ed-reform movement writ large.

That Guggenheim is right to be worried that his film will be seen as taking sides in the charter debate was evident one night in July, when I tagged along with Canada to a screening in Washington for education-policy wonks and activists. At the Q&A session afterward, a woman raised her hand and said, My main concern is that the documentary seems to send the message that all charter schools are successful. As you know, there are a minority that are very successful, but way too often they are no better than the neighborhood schools.

This is really about good schools, whether they are charter schools or public schools, Canada said, immediately conceding the point that many of the former are lousy. But here is the issue in public education, he went on. Those charter schools [that are performing well] are seen as a threat. It’s like, If only we can find out a reason why they don’t really work, then we’ll all feel better’ ... What I mean is that as long as we’re all failing, then there’s nothing you can do.


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