New film calls for reforms that challenge the education bureaucracy

“I thought there was no one with enough power to save us… I was waiting for Superman,” laments Geoffrey Canada. Now an education leader and prominent character in the new Davis Guggenheim film, Canada’s dire schooling experience sets the scene for a look at “the short end of the stick” that young Americans have been getting from government schools. (Article continues below.)

On Saturday the Choice Foundation and Canal Street Theatres hosted the New Orleans premiere of “Waiting for Superman.” With New Orleans a hotbed for reform and the battle for governance of local schools in full swing, there could hardly be a more relevant film. The audience included education leaders such as Superintendent Paul Pastorek and Orleans Parish School Board member Woody Koppel, along with attendees of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools’ annual conference.

Guggenheim gained notoriety and an academy award for his 2006 film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” but he began filming education issues back in 1999. At that time he documented the first year’s work of new teaching graduates in Los Angeles schools, and he hoped to “create awareness of the crisis as well as inspire the next generation to become teachers.” However, when the time came to send his own children to school, he chose the other path – independent schools. He describes this decision as counter to his egalitarian principles, and it drove him to document why one would avoid government education.

He proceeds to examine the American school system through the eyes of five ambitious young students, along with their families. The students come from different backgrounds and include one student with access to a relatively affluent government school. Their common ground is the struggle for access to education that would suit their needs, and their parents’ deep concern for their children’s long-term prospects.

In between the children’s stories and some historical background on education reform, he introduces viewers to the “drop-out factories” of America. These schools have embarrassing failure rates – even after the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 – and a stunning lack of teacher accountability. The statistics are staggering, though numbers alone only tell part of the story. One wonders what a grade six science level means when only 14 percent of Mississippi students achieve it; nor does Guggenheim address the deficiencies of standardized testing and ordinal rankings.

The international comparisons and trends are perhaps the most striking. The notion that profligate spending will allow America to lead the way in government education lies in tatters. When companies such as Microsoft head beyond American borders to find workers, while American prisons burst at the seams, few would dispute that we have a problem.

Guggenheim refrains from being too explicit in his prescriptions, but he refers to chief road block to reform as the “Blob.” The Blob is the empire of educational bureaucracy and unions, from the local school boards right on up to the federal Department of Education. While set up to help improve education standards and employment conditions, Guggenheim believes their lack of accountability and coordination has become the greatest impediment.

However, he doesn’t single out any one individual within the Blob. Rather, he uses Michelle Rhee, the recently resigned D.C. education superintendent, and other education leaders as examples of individuals who have tried to take on the educational establishment over issues such as teacher tenure. Rhee’s struggle and subsequent political ousting with the change of D.C.’s mayor reflects the uphill battle such reformers face, even from the constituency they are endeavoring to serve.

While the structure of the film didn’t flow seamlessly, by the end all viewers knew the stakes of the game. The hope provided by superior alternatives like charter schools was there for all to see, but the tension over a lack of access was equally heartbreaking. While New Orleanians can choose from many charter schools, most cities offer limited opportunity to attend a school operating outside of the education Blob.

Ashley Bond, a mother investigating schools for her two young children, attended and was “moved.”

“We’ve got a really big problem, and it’s overwhelming and inspiring but infuriating.” She wants individuals to “galvanize and organize… Parents need to come together and unite.”

A former teachers union president in Arizona, Elizabeth Elizardy, was also in attendance and related closely with the message of the film.

“It’s really eye-opening… seeing this movie, I’m actually ashamed. It makes me rethink my position, as a leader of a teachers union and what they advocate for and what they may be doing to our children.”

Jim Huger, a local businessman and chairman of the Choice Foundation, organized the event with Paramount Pictures. The mission of his organization is to promote school choice in Louisiana, and to him the film was an opportunity to educate the public.

“The more and more we can get the word out… People are touched by it. You see the statistics and you see what’s going on; it’s a powerful thing.”

“Waiting for Superman” is available at New Orleans theatres from the 22nd of October, including at Canal Place Theatres.

Fergus Hodgson is the capitol bureau reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be contacted at, and one can follow him on twitter.