Illustration: Michael Duffy
Long before director Davis Guggenheim jumped out of a phone booth in his Superman costume, I spent three decades as a high school teacher in Paterson, one of New Jerseys poorest cities. Paterson had its own 15 minutes of school reform fame in the 1980s, thanks to Principal Joe Clark, whose bullhorn and baseball bat were featured in another superhero school movie, Lean on Me, a sanitized version of Clarks reign of error at Eastside High School.
Watching this years rise to fame of Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor who is one of the heroes of Guggenheims Waiting for Superman, I was struck by how the targets had changed. Clarks baseball bat was aimed at the young black males who were demonized as a criminal element in the schoolyard. Rhees weapon was a broom to sweep away all those lousy teachers and their unions.
But what hasnt changed is the use of emotionally charged images and simplistic rhetoric to frame complicated issues about public education in ways that promote elite agendas.
Across the country, Waiting for Superman has mobilized celebrity star power and high-profile political support for an education reform campaign that is destabilizing even relatively successful schools and districts while generating tremendous upheaval in struggling ones.
The now-familiar buzzwords are charter schools, merit pay, choice, and accountability. But the larger goal, to borrow a phrase from the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a political lobby financed by hedge fund millionaires that is a chief architect of the campaign, is to burst the dam that has historically protected public education and its $600 billion annual expenditures from unchecked commercial exploitation and privatization.
In New Jersey, an odd alliance of Oprah Winfrey, Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, Republican Gov. Chris Christie, and rock star mayor Cory Booker has put Newark in the forefront of this effort to impose business model ed reform. But the campaign is headed for a district near you, if it hasnt arrived already, and the stakes are high. I dont think it will kill public education, the dean of Seton Hall Universitys College of Education and Human Services told a New Jersey columnist. But it already has maimed it.