Are Unions Educational Kryptonite?

New doc pins school failures on unions

Education Austin co-President Rae Nwosu
Education Austin co-President Rae Nwosu (Photo by John Anderson)

The new documentary Waiting for 'Super­man' has triggered national media chatter about kick-starting a revolution in education. In it, An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim presents U.S. public schools as struggling through a crisis created by intractable teachers' unions. His solution? Bust the unions and expand charter school access. But can his arguments stand up in Texas, a state where unions are effectively powerless and charter schools fail just like regular public schools?

Distributors Paramount Pictures have given the film, which opens in Austin on Oct. 15, the full-court press. A large number of invite-only early screenings have led to Oscar talk and to the ultimate seal of media approval – an appearance by Guggenheim on the final season of Oprah. Guggenheim has called his film a rallying cry, and its closing credits include a repeated plea to viewers to take a pledge to become involved in education. However, after viewing the film, Louis Malfaro, the secretary-treasurer of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, called it "a fairly inaccurate and overly simplified view" of schools that "ignores little factors like urban poverty and chooses to focus on a very emotional tale about five kids and their families who are trying to get access to quality education."

The movie concentrates on two case studies of educational reform: first, the Harlem Children's Zone in New York, led by entrepreneur Geoffrey Canada and now being used by the Obama White House as the model for its new Promise Neighborhoods Initiative (see "Promises, Promises," Aug. 6), and second, the radical reforms undertaken by Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. But while Guggenheim talks about Canada's "whatever it takes" mantra, he doesn't mention the network of social services and support systems that are the backbone of the Harlem project and of the federal program it inspired. Similarly, he portrays Rhee as a pragmatic and effective reformer. Yet her time in office has been racked with controversy and accusations of an autocratic, self-promoting management style, and her divisive tenure was a key factor in the defeat of her political patron, Mayor Adrien Fenty, who lost re-election to Council Member Vincent Gray. With her position now politically untenable, Rhee announced her resignation on Oct. 13.

Nevertheless, charter school advocates are now taking political and fundraising advantage of the discussion surrounding the film. Pro-charter pressure group Center for Education Reform has e-mailed reporters with links to its report "Fact-Checking Charter School Achievement," which it calls an "FYI-Resource as you write about Waiting for 'Super­man.'" Paramount has organized advance screenings for charter schools, including the Yes Prep charter network in Houston. Yes director of communications Jill Willis said that the schools had held a screening to which they had invited "an intimate group" that included staff, the Yes board, "and some key supporters and donors."

That same courtesy has not been extended so freely to public school teachers and teachers' unions. Even though it is the state affiliate of the National Education Association, Americas' biggest teachers' union, the Texas State Teachers Association has received no invitation to host a screening, nor has the association leadership been invited to one, according to TSTA public affairs specialist Clay Robison. Education Austin co-President Rae Nwosu saw an advance screening organized through the Austin Independent School District and was unimpressed. She said, "They put three or four schools in the spotlight, and people are supposed to look at that and say, 'Look at that; that's what all the schools are.'" She was concerned that it is already being used to present teachers' unions as opposing reform, when in fact Education Austin was pivotal in developing the district's groundbreaking Reach strategic compensation initiative. The union has also just been awarded $185,000 by Texas AFT to explore opening in-district charters – the kind of innovation Guggenheim says unions oppose. "We're working with the district and the community," said Nwosu. "It's not teachers or the union taking over. We're collaborating."

For Malfaro, what is most frustrating about the film is its omissions. For example, Gug­genheim cites Finland as one nation leaving the U.S. in the dust in math and science – but, Malfaro noted, "All the teachers in Finland are in a union." Similarly, he criticized the film's presentation of charters as the solution to all ills. For example, there are more than 8,000 children covered by the Harlem Child­ren's Zone, but only 1,000 of those attend one of Geoffrey Canada's four Promise Academies. The rest are registered in the zone's regular public schools. Even Canada has told The New York Times that charter schools "are not a panacea," and while some are models to be replicated, "there are lousy ones that should be closed." Nwosu also criticized Guggenheim for ignoring charter schools' ability to handpick who they teach. "We can't kick kids out of AISD," she said, "where a charter school can."

TSTA spokesman Robison echoed Nwosu and Mal­faro's disappointment about the film's false dichotomy of educators vs. education reformers. "Teachers have been trying to improve education for a long time," he said. "We're not Johnny-come-latelies to this at all."

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