The problems within America's public education system are on display in the new documentary Waiting For "Superman", which opens Friday in the Tampa Bay area (actually in only one theater, The Woodlands Square 20 in Oldsmar).
As CL film critic Joe Bardi writes in our current issue, the film takes big shots at the teachers unions:
"Superman struck me as a decidedly anti-partisan movie, willing to poke at every U.S. president of the last 50 years regardless of party and plant a stick firmly in the eye of the teachers unions, who more than anyone else come off as the major obstacle to reform.
Randi Weingarten, the head of the 1.5 million-strong American Federation of Teachers, is not depicted favorably in the film. And she's got some things to say about it.
Weingarten was in Tampa on Thursday along with Education Secretary Arne Duncan as part of a visit to a Hillsborough County public school, where they learned how the district has become a model for the rest of country in its successful partnership between the local union, the school board and the school district (which led in part to its being awarded a $100 million grant by the Gates Foundation).
When CL asked Weingarten about Waiting for "Superman," she praised it for showing the "urgency" about how America's schoolchildren are being under-served. But she also calls it misleading.
"It does not show one great public school," she says. "It does not show one great public school teacher. It does not spend any time at all showing the long-term work that we've seen in Hillsborough that has created so much success for so many kids."
Weingarten thinks that director Davis Guggenheim (best known for winning an Oscar for the 2006 documentary on climate change An Inconvenient Truth) relies too heavily on stereotyping teachers unions.
"I don't want to take anything away from the urgency of it, but it's just a very simplistic movie that is factually wrong about who unions are, who we try to be and has overly simplified the problem, in a way that the solutions that are proposed in the movie are not real solutions."
Director Davis Guggenheim told New York magazine last month that he was concerned that the film could be considered anti-union, which he insists was not his intention.
Heres what Im scared of: that the movie will be misperceived as a pro-charter, anti-union piece, he says. The movie isnt anti-union; its pro-kids. And to be pro-kids, I have to be tough on all of the adults, starting with myself. And the movies not pro-charter. Its just that lotteries happen at a lot of charter schools, and the lottery is the central metaphor in the movie. Its like, you could have the American Dreamif you win the lottery. The lottery is a metaphor for what we do to our kids.
Those who have seen the film agree, and say it shows that the system has been set up to be what is best for adults, instead of what's best for the kids. AFT's Randi Weingarten says she thinks the film makes it harder for public school teachers who are making a difference in kids' lives every day.
"Do we have problems? Of course. Should there be ways that we are insuring that every single child gets a great education? Of course. Is that what Hillsborough is doing right now? Yes. So I would have wished that Davis Guggenheim would have actually taken some time to take a look at really good public school models, instead of simply looking at charters, 80% of which don't do a good job. Or instead of focusing on a district that has since gotten its contract done, or focusing on rubber rooms that the union had been trying to close for years, you know I wish he would have told the full, more accurate story."
But Weingarten says she can't get too exercised about it all, saying simply, "It's just a movie."