Waiting For Superman: A Review Essay

It’s a question that parents keep echoing as they search for the right school for their children: Why can’t every school be good? Why isn’t this as easy as sending my kid to the neighborhood school?

I could read it achingly vividly in the parents’ faces in Waiting for Superman. It was painfully clear in their hopeful optimism as the families of five likeable children underwent a lottery to enable their kids to attend various charter schools, and in the faces of weeping kids who didn’t get into a school that could help them fulfill their dreams.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-XwSm7j-Sw&feature=related]

And here’s the biggest trouble I have with in-demand charters, especially ones that have a high rate of success in helping kids from poor backgrounds: how do you get rid of the lottery when the scarcity of a good “free” school is what undergirds the free-market demand for the scarce resource (a successful school)? A wait-list means desirability/demand, and a wait-list ensures that the public charter school won’t “go out of business,” so to speak. Despite the immense good that’s done by these schools, inequality is baked into the selection process in a way that it’s not for public schools, which must accept all within its district borders. Why can’t the successful charters take what they’ve learned and convert back to or import it back to public schools, where all are accepted? Do you see the logic of what I’m saying?

In a city as big as Los Angeles, the search for a good school is an epic task. When I lived within the boundaries of LAUSD, I tried to soak up wisdom about gaming the system–and an overwhelming, vast, byzantine system it is involving the accumulation of points accrued through strategic applications to schools you’re not really interested in–to make sure my son got a good education. Sandra Tsing Loh did amazing work on this with her Burning Moms/Ask a Magnet Yenta series and has always had the conviction that public schools in Los Angeles have gotten a bad rap. She really bucked the tide by saying that if you look at your neighborhood school, chances are you’ll see some good things happening there even if the API scores aren’t “stellar.”

The choice of school is so provocative people feel compelled to recite genealogies of their own educational backgrounds, mention teachers in their families, and reflect on their own years in school. (If you’re interested, I’ve written a little bit about my own schooling here, here, and here.) As for myself, my own genealogy goes like this: father a math professor (union, btw), mother a college lecturer in cartography at a small, college town in rural upstate NY. Me: faculty brat. Attended a private elementary lab school attached to the town’s teaching college (which for years I’d always thought was public). Public junior high school and 2 years of mediocre high school in the rural upstate NY town, last two years of high school in a wealthy suburban Maryland high school featured in U.S. News & World Report on the best public high schools in America. That elite public high school was where cars in the student parking lot were newer and more expensive than the cars in the teacher parking lot. Went on to public/private Ivy League college for undergrad, flagship public research university for graduate school for an M.A. and a PhD. The purpose of all those degrees was to teach at the college level. I am largely a product of the public school system and am proud I could get an excellent education. My spouse is also a public school graduate and we went to the same public/private university. We talked for a long time about where to send our kid to school, and we were committed to having our child attend public schools.

Son, now 7,  attended a lovely private preschool attached to a private school that went to 8th grade. Son now attends a public elementary school in a “highly desirable” (read: the mortgage payments are killing us) and tiny school district with good schools through 12th grade near, but not in, the city of Los Angeles.

So much is embedded in where you send your child to school–what does it say about you and what you value? What are your aspirations for your kid? For immigrants, as my parents were, there’s a kind of heightened anxiety about schools because they know how a good education can catapult a child, and therefore the rest of the family, several rungs up the ladder economically and socially.

We mostly think of ourselves as a “classless” society but the schools available for our children immediately puts the lie to that fiction. In sending our children to the neighborhood school, or opting for a magnet, charter, or private school, we’re forced to confront all our class biases. When liberals or progressives choose schools, that’s when ideology meets reality and the rubber hits the road. A progressive with kids is someone with road-tested idealism. Sometimes the results aren’t pretty.

I also think of Texas, where extreme-right religious conservatives have hijacked the public school curriculum by dictating the most outrageous changes to schoolbooks that favor creationism, a certain vision of Christianity, and slanted views of history. In states like Texas or others, friends with children have fled to the safety of private schools where ironically, even if they’re parochial schools, evolution and the scientific method are taught without question.

There’s no way around it. Because it comes down to this: if your neighborhood public school is only mediocre, are you going to sacrifice your child on the altar of principle?  The reality is that in a big city, inequality between schools is magnified, just like class differences and racial stratification. And while you are a progressive, you are also a parent trying to avoid having your kids ground up in the gears of inequality.

And that’s exactly how Waiting for Superman opens: with the director, guilty white liberal Davis Guggenheim, driving by three public schools near his house as he drops his own kid off at a private school.

I liked Waiting for Superman, because I am a sucker for documentaries with children in them. It reminded me of one of my all-time favorites, Spellbound, which also illustrated in poignant fashion children with a passion to achieve and the heartbreaking reality of unequal resources at school and at home to prepare them. Again, like Spellbound, Waiting for Superman‘s structure builds up several children’s individual stories and then brings the strands together for narrative payoff as we learn, along with the families, if their children win the lottery to attend a desirable charter school. But I wonder if successful narrative and emotional closure is achieved at the expense of a more accurate picture of what parents, teachers, administrators, and students are trying to do to make public education work for them?

Pro-Charter, Anti-Union?

Complaints among progressives about the film’s pro-charter slant have been rampant. As someone who considered for five minutes sending her child to a brand new charter school (in our old Los Angeles city neighborhood) that emphasized arts curriculum, I can see the appeal of charter schools. They promise a customized educational experience, whether it’s some sort of math/science/language/arts or other lens, like special needs or learning disability. They’re often smaller, in general, so the class sizes are smaller and there’s more chance of individualized attention. They lack the baggage of existing public schools–and I don’t mean unions. I’m talking about the culture of a school–charters appear to be more nimble in responding to the needs of parents and their children because institutionally there hasn’t been baggage around “how it’s always been done.” By nature, charter schools attract entrepreneurial administrators and teachers unafraid of breaking new ground.

The strongest criticism of charters I’ve seen from the left is that they’re back-door union busting (although some charters do have unionized teachers, like Green Dot in Los Angeles, and there is nothing to stop teachers at a charter school from joining a union), they siphon funding from existing public schools, and they sneak in a for-profit model for what should be a non-profit endeavor.

My own reasons for not choosing a charter were much more pragmatic: while I liked the idea of fine/performing/visual arts incorporated into the curriculum from kindergarten onward…honestly? I didn’t want my child to be a guinea pig. The school was just getting off the ground. It was completely untested. No track record. The other big downfall of a charter, I felt, is that existing schools for better or worse have considerable real estate devoted to them. Hopefully there are in place facilities like an athletic field, swimming pool, auditorium, science/computer lab, and other amenities, which, in a functioning school, will be decently maintained. A brand new charter school may be nomadic in its existence for the first few years. It might occupy less than desirable quarters simply because in a big city or even in a suburb, real estate is at a premium. (Side note: “conversion” charter schools can also be existing schools that decide to switch their status to charter, presumably using existing facilities.) Now, for a kindergarten class, space needs are modest, but older kids need more space. For everything. (This is also partly why I decided against the private school that went to 8th grade–the facilities were compact and even pretty generous given the dense in-city location, but on-campus green space was nil and it was hard to imagine play areas or other resources adequately meeting the needs of older kids.)

So I think right there the belief that good teachers alone can make a great school is somewhat undercut, and that’s without even factoring in teachers’ unions. Because a good school is also the extracurricular activities it can offer the students, and part of that enrichment involves committing bricks and mortar to those activities. The thing is, until recently many schools were sadly neglected and the facilities slid into decline from lack of attention or weren’t updated because of lack of funds. So while in theory facilities existed for kids, in practice some schools had ceilings that were caving in and computer labs were a pipe dream. In California this cumulative neglect is particularly egregious because of Prop 13′s three decades of starving public schools of funding by depriving them of tax revenue from up-to-date market-value property tax rolls. Instead, houses owned or purchased in 1978 or earlier pay minimal taxes while those purchased later pay top dollar, in some cases 7 and 8 times in property taxes of what a homeowner in a pre-1978 purchased house pays. Worse yet, corporations hide behind the skirts of “little old ladies” who’ve owned their houses since 1978 and pay property taxes based on that valuation; corporations also enjoy artificially low property taxes on the 1978 value of their business real estate despite also banking enormous profits during the intervening 32 years.

Now as for those anti-teacher, union-busting charges–how true are they? Many critiques of Waiting for Superman decry the film for demonizing the two biggest teacher’s unions in the nation, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). When the charter schools movement launched in the 1990s in Minnesota, it was through the collaboration of an education professor in Massachussetts and the AFT. Some unions have themselves bid to run or started charter schools in cooperation with non-profit charter management organizations.

In the film, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek tells us that “the Democratic Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the AFT and the NEA,” with political contributions to campaigns far exceeding that of any other union. (He also points out that on the state level, the Republican Party enjoys a similar largesse from these two teachers’ unions.) The point hangs in the air, but what is Alter trying to say? That union donations to politicians result in policies that favor the status quo for unions? Yet at another point in the film, we’re told that because schools are funded by the states as well as the federal government, local school control is caught in a confusing thicket of rules and regulations from both sources. An unwieldy state school bureaucracy and nameless, faceless administrators who are part of the problem at failing schools aren’t called out for scrutiny in Superman, though it seems to me any union dysfunction is necessarily entwined with administrative dysfunction. It may be a chicken-and-egg situation: which came first, the confusing rules or the union in interaction with state and federal mandates that created the need for complex rules?

Blaming unions is easy, but as this Nation article points out, teacher’s unions are not uniform despite what seems like a cohesive national face. Local branches have worked to urge more stable school funding, smaller classrooms, and a lower teacher-student ratio–all things that are good for students and parents want as well. And a significant subset of teachers are part of a social justice movement acting from within unions to push for longer school days, greater support for kids from high-poverty backgrounds, and specialized training and support for teachers in schools with the worst achievement rates, because these teachers know that unless they address the tides of drugs, unemployment/poverty, and decimated families and communities, kids’ tough lives outside of school will continue swamping their efforts to teach.

Teachers’ unions are portrayed as resisting change and creating maze-like administrative procedures that allow bad teachers, “accused of everything from incompetence to sexual harassment,” to languish at full pay in “rubber rooms” while they wait years for their cases to be reviewed given the complexity of union-contracted procedures to fire them. The figure thrown out regarding NYC’s cost to pay regular salaries to “rubber room” teachers is $100 million per year. In Los Angeles, it’s estimated to be about $10 million a year. The film highlights the difficulty of firing bad teachers: we learn from the New Yorker article on “rubber rooms” I just linked that bad teachers and ones held on the reserve list who don’t appear to want to work comprise about 2600 teachers out of NYC’s over 800,000 teachers. Tenure–lifetime job security–makes the bar high for administrators who want to fire poor teachers.  Superman portrays union resistance to a new pay structure that would allow teachers to choose between a modest increase in salary and retain tenure, OR give up tenure and instead make almost twice as much money if they agree to be measured on how well their students perform as reluctance to embrace what’s best for students. Union advocates have been slow, in some cases, to understand the depth of parental outrage over “rubber rooms” (Drunk in the classroom? Molesting students? No lesson plan?) and unions need to address how they protect these offenders. It may not be a large number of teachers who inflict educational malpractice on children, but even one child molested or abused by a teacher is one too many. I don’t think “rubber rooms” are a partisan issue. They’re a blight on the profession and need to be dealt with quickly and at minimal cost to school districts. Teachers who can’t or won’t teach need to be ushered quickly out of the classroom and guided to another role, or counseled to find other work. (Since the New Yorker article and the making of Superman, NYC’s “rubber rooms,” at least, have been dismantled and the union process sped up for reviewing disciplinary and other poor teacher performance.)

In my school district as well as over much of California, school budget shortfalls have also undercut that “lifetime tenure” for teachers. While it’s true firing a teacher for cause is difficult, it’s been all too easy for the state to issue pink slips to teachers due to insufficient budgets and a broken California state budget process that delivers budgets months late and with the maximum amount of Republican obstruction. I have tremendous sympathy for teachers who receive pink slips in May and then don’t find out if there’s enough money to be rehired until August. How does one plan a life this way, not to mention develop curriculum for the coming year? This I find more corrosive to a greater number of teachers, especially new teachers with less seniority but perhaps the most enthusiasm, than any attempt by charter schools to bypass the unionization process. And this is something I wish Waiting for Superman addressed better.

Maybe instead of tenure, unions and administrations could agree on 3-, 5- and 7-year renewable contracts. This is an option offered at the college level to some professors in lieu of lifetime tenure and it seems to strike a middle ground between protecting teachers from politically-motivated firing and ensuring that teachers enjoy some stability in their jobs. Something I found shocking about tenure for K-12 teachers: not even college professors gain lifetime tenure after only two years of work. Geoffrey Canada freely admits in Superman that he himself was only a mediocre teacher three years in. He only felt he became a master teacher five years in, with much coaching, feedback, and mentoring from other, more experienced teachers. Why can elementary and secondary teachers gain tenure with only two years of experience in the classroom, when by the admission of many teachers themselves they probably have not developed full mastery of the process?

Tenure review at a university occurs about 5 years in and involves a comprehensive review of publishing and teaching. Here’s an example of how tenure works at the College of Southern Maryland, with stepped reviews of probationary periods before final tenure grant. Here’s an example of how renewable 3- and 5-year contracts work on the college level in lieu of a lifetime tenure grant, with commentary by a community college dean. Perhaps with each long-term contract renewal, the whole of a teacher’s career to date as well as the most recent contracted period could be reviewed and discussed, so that periodic checks are a built-in part of the process. Let’s face it, even excellent teachers get stale or need renewal or inspiration, if not required to explain themselves in a thorough self-review.

As head of the AFT, Randi Weingartner is nominal villain of the film. She’s struggled to correct and update the view of unions as obstacles to change in various interviews and articles since the film’s release, instead arguing that unions have nothing to gain by protecting bad teachers.

“We have spent a lot of time in the last two years looking at ourselves in a mirror, trying to figure out what we’ve done right and what we’ve done wrong, and we’re trying to reform,” Ms. Weingarten said in an interview.

Early this year, she delivered a major policy speech that embraced tying teachers’ evaluations in part to students’ scores on standardized tests, a formula that teachers — and Ms. Weingarten herself — once resisted.

Speaking as someone who taught undergrads in a classroom for four years as a graduate teaching assistant, I can empathize with the reluctance of K-12 teachers to be assessed by student performance. I can use every trick in the book to motivate, encourage, remediate, inspire, provoke, and entice my students to embrace the material, but I cannot FORCE a student to deliver work, be curious, or want to excel. TEACHING IS MORE ART THAN SCIENCE. It bears repeating: TEACHING IS MORE ART THAN SCIENCE. Good teaching, which I’ve have the incredible good fortune of experiencing in my life on several occasions both as a student and once or twice as as the teacher, is a complex alchemy of teaching style, the teacher’s personality, the dynamic of the classroom, the culture of the school, the subject matter, the kinds of skills the students bring as a whole, the quirks of an individual student, the materials available to spark engagement in a student’s mind, the connection the teacher makes to the class as a whole and to individual students, and a good dose of motherwit about people and commonsense psychology.

Good teaching is good standup comedy in slow motion. Punchlines might take years to land. The laughter from a flash of discovery might not happen for months after you tell the story and set up the joke.

Even excellent teachers will tell you that there have been students they lost to family problems, drugs, poverty/homelessness, the student’s mental health issues, or other serious factors outside the teacher’s control. Especially excellent teachers will tell you this–the students that slip through the cracks weigh heavily on your heart, and there will be those students no matter what.

So you need not be a crappy teacher to hesitate at having your work assessed by student performance when so many factors affecting that performance are the very things you yourself are battling alongside your student. Moreover, how do excellent teachers daring to teach at the worst school with the lowest student achievement scores escape measurement that doesn’t fairly record student progress? If not carefully implemented, value-added teacher assessment based on test scores alone can exacerbate the inequality in school systems and punish those teachers willing to work in the toughest schools.

One other thing leapt out at me as I watched the film: at one point, we see an animated segment that explains how “even the top 5% of American math students are only among the top 23% globally.” Math achievement measured among the general American student population was much less impressive: we rank number 25 among all countries. Yet when asked how confident they were about their abilities in math, American students ranked number one in confidence. Overinflated ego mismatched with fair-to-middling results? What would this be the definition of–denial, or delusion? Years of watching my father grade blue test booklets of his college math students and listening to him complain about their poor preparation from the 1970s to the 2000s has instilled in me this conviction: not enough middle class parents value education in this country. If they did, high school math teams would rival high school football teams for status. There is a culture of anti-intellectualism in this country that serves us poorly. We made fun of pocket-protector “geeks,” and now they’re kicking our asses all the way to the bank. The home-grown ones, that is. Superman discusses briefly how Silicon Valley companies have many high tech jobs requiring STEM prowess, but they cannot find enough qualified applicants to fill those jobs. So we have to import them from elsewhere: East Asia, South Asia, Eastern Europe.

And I have to say, along with calling out the lack of respect for learnedness in this country by parents and other adults, I have to call out in a huge way fundamentalist religion that is actively hostile to science. Religionists who put any credence in creationism are hobbling this nation and holding it back from competing with the rest of the world, which is not so benighted to believe the same. China and India, thankfully not yet overtaken by fundamentalist anti-science religion, will be happy to kick our asses while Big Religion decides it prefers Dark Ages reasoning to the Enlightenment, and Big Money/Big Oil convinces people global climate crisis is a myth when it’s not.

No, good teachers will find themselves saddled with poorly performing students in every class and improvement will be incremental. Is it fair to make the entirety of the teacher’s professional advancement dependent on how his or her students perform? No. Where, for example, are parents in supporting their children in this equation? No one is blaming working poor parents for not caring about their children’s educations–if anything, I loved Superman‘s message that working class brown and black parents treasure a good education and do everything they possibly can to give their kids opportunities, despite burdens that come from many jobs held or even intermittent joblessness. If anything, the people who seem most unreasonably hostile to education are a certain segment of middle class white Christians who should know better. I sat there in the theatre seeing Superman‘s motivated children yearning for a chance to get a good basic education and then I see Glenn Beck offering spurious, hideously distorted, misleading and outright false information FOR A FEE as part of “Beck U.” to people who presumably aren’t from impoverished backgrounds and I. FEEL. SICK. WITH. RAGE.

So parental support for education is also a big factor in how well kids do that teachers have no control over. Should measuring student achievement still matter somewhat in teacher assessment? Yes. But. The devil’s in the details. But what is the consequence for parents of students who don’t seem to care about their children’s education? Perhaps if we had a more cosmopolitan population, we’d be shocked and dismayed at how poorly trained our students are compared to students in other nations. And if we had any honesty at all, we’d have to look at ourselves to understand why we allow bullying, why teen pregnancy happens in the frequency it does, why helicopter parents consistently take the attitude “my child, right or wrong.” And we’d have to look at ourselves as a society to ask why so many children are homeless and hungry, or have completely dysfunctional parents. Those are things no school or union or single teacher can fix. Too many of the worst schools try to put a bandaid on a hemorrhage when it’s full service pre- and post-natal care, parenting classes, excellent child care and preschools, counseling and social work to address imprisonment and drug addiction that would really help. Yet it’s these social service programs that are consistently cut.

Charter School Funding

Do charter schools siphon public funding from existing public schools as many progressives allege?

I didn’t quite understand how schools are funded in California, period. So I searched for charter school funding guidelines (pdf) and worked backward from that.

California’s charter schools are funded much like other non-charter California public schools. They receive funding from local property taxes, state education aid programs, the California Lottery, the federal government, fundraising, and other sources. They are prohibited from charging tuition, but may charge fees for certain items to the same extent as non-charter public schools may.

Charter schools are entitled to funding from five primary sources:
• The “Charter School General Purpose Grant,”
• The “Charter School Categorical Block Grant,
• State categorical and special-purpose programs,
• The California Lottery, and
• Federal categorical programs.

Remember my concern about facilities at the beginning of this essay/review? Applications from charters that serve communities where 70& of children get free or subsidized lunch, or are located in communities where that’s the case get highest priority from state school facilities funds. California charter schools also have two pots of money specifically allocated to them for facilities funding via bond measures Prop 47 (2002) and Prop 55 (2005). That’s only right, as many of the most sorely needed charters are the ones that serve low-income communities. And a few of these charters have done a magnificent job instilling a love for achievement and learning, and giving students actual support through tutoring and other programs so their skills meet or even exceed state averages. It’s middle-class charters that offer specialized approaches (an arts focus, special attention to learning disabled children, etc) that often fall by the wayside when it comes to securing funding to lease or buy space.

Insofar as charter schools draw from the same sources as existing public schools, yes, they do make the pot smaller for all schools. We have not raised taxes to compensate for a larger number of schools per same pot of money, although the bond measures were designed to keep facilities funding from burdening the overall pot. However, since many charters also get funding from outside sources, such as foundation grants and so on, charters can’t be said to completely rival existing public schools for facilities funding. But it’s just common sense: if there are no additional revenues to enlarge the pot, but numbers of charters added to existing schools increases the total number of schools, it’s hard not to see charter and existing public schools pitted against each other for funding. We could alleviate this by raising taxes to fully fund existing and additional charter schools, but so far have voters and legislators shown the political will to do this?

I think parents absolutely need the choices that publicly-funded charters, private schools, and public schools provide. But the answer is not to make the pot of money for public education smaller, but bigger. And the answer is also to assiduously cull the “laboratories,” or public charters, that are underperforming and plow insights about what did work back into the existing public schools.

The unspoken truth is that charters can’t spend as much per student if more of each school funding dollar has to go to facilities.

The unfortunate reality is that per-pupil operating funds for charter schools are almost always lower than those for traditional public schools in their districts.  Currently, charter schools receive per-pupil operating funds at an average of only 73 percent of the amount given to traditional public schools in the same districts.

If many charter schools tend to receive $.73 to the dollar that existing schools get for operating funds, and then must spend a proportion of that $.73 to secure facilities that are less developed than existing schools (which theoretically have no facilities cost beyond upkeep), it would seem that charters are hobbled by startup costs that existing schools are not. Given that many, though not all, charters are set up in urban locations to serve impoverished communities, they’ll have to contend with the expense of urban real estate or request that school districts re-allocate space from existing schools. Suburban charters find it no less a challenge to secure adequate space. After all, the most brilliant chemistry teacher can only do so much if there are no science labs for students to do experiments.

Additional expenses that charter schools typically incur that existing schools may not are consulting fees to the for-profit companies set up to help guide newly-minted grassroots charters through the minefields of school financing, grant applications, and state education requirements, as is offered by companies like this one. It’s unclear whether these additional expenses would come from the same per-pupil charter school dollar or if these could be covered by add-on grants. For-profit charter management organizations like Mosaica Education, Inc. are used by many charter schools to subcontract out administrative work and also purchase curriculum. Why does this need to be the case, when there’s existing school administrative staff? Does the purchase of Mosaica’s curriculum discourage teacher input or flatten the personality of each school in the system? I’d like to see more economists familiar with education financing address this issue, because if anything, this seems like privatization of work that was previously done by state employees (also unionized). It would seem to me that district-dependent charters–charters that rely on existing public school infrastructure for administrative and other operational needs–would be a more cost-effective and efficient way to deliver the needed services.

I’d also like to see existing schools make public the budget for consulting fees, because I suspect there’s fat here as well. In fact, I would LOVE a widget that shows how much of a public dollar goes to the student. Private schools and public charters might also be well-served by that kind of transparency and accountability as well.

Charter School Performance

It’s been argued that charter schools in impoverished neighborhoods are getting great results with students and developing a record of success in placing graduates in two- and four-year colleges. Are these studies trustworthy?
I think it depends on several factors:

  • The region or city being studied–local results matter most for parents
  • The methodology of the study
  • The results charters claim to achieve
  • The study’s funder

Rather than focus on statistics that can be manipulated to show charters as effective or ineffective, I prefer to focus on practices that charters often incorporate that I’d like to see existing public schools adopt if they don’t already:

1. uniforms

2. parent/child learning contract with the school and the teacher, including specific parent involvement tasks

3. longer school day/longer school year

4. summer enrichment classes

5. tutoring for children who need it before it becomes a problem

6. wrap-around services in the poorest neighborhoods to the families most in need, including language instruction for parents if need be

7. occasional parenting academy/parenting Q&A presentations

8. integration of math & language arts across the curriculum

9. ongoing professional development for teachers including coaching and mentorship built into the school year at periodic times to address challenges on the fly

10. consistent non-violent class discipline coaching for teachers, including anti-bullying strategies

I’m a supporter of public schools and voted to help meet a budget shortfall with a parcel tax in my community. But I think being willing to raise taxes on ourselves, even in a time of financial hardship, has to happen on a statewide level in order for all public schools to improve. And I think while charters are a great choice serving many different kinds of populations, there should be greater oversight of the ones that are just as much a drain on the public funding system as existing “dropout factory” schools. This is both for the health of the charter school in question, so more of each dollar can go directly to the student, and to cut out redundancies in what the private sector provides over what the public sector already provides.

Because introducing privatization for its own sake is bad– profit always comes from somewhere: a teacher’s salary that would be higher than otherwise? An amount spent on the student that would be higher otherwise? Duplication of what state school district employees do otherwise? At an extreme, abuse of public funds leads to corruption and self-dealing by charter management organizations, and we can’t rely on an industry that essentially wrote and lobbied its own laws to also self-police.

Examples of fraudulent use of taxpayer money cited in Congresswoman Judy Chu’s proposed Charter School Good Governance and Transparency Act:

In Los Angeles, a principal at the New Academy Canoga Park Charter School allegedly misappropriated $2.6 million, which directly led the city to begin the process of closing the school.

An investigation into Philadelphia’s charter schools revealed that 13 schools were involved in complex real estate maneuvers, apparent conflicts of interest and lucrative CEO salary arrangements. The city’s investigation has resulted in 9 criminal investigations by the US Attorney’s Office.

In Texas, a statewide audit revealed that half of all the charter schools in the state had overestimated enrollment counts, resulting in an extra $26 million in payments to charter schools.  The state estimates that it will only be able to recoup $17 million because $9 million went to charter schools that have closed their doors.

This is ultimately why, given my layperson’s understanding of how charter schools are managed, I feel uncomfortable with charter management organizations increasing the share of administrative work they do and funneling public money to textbook suppliers and curriculum developers without taking advantage of economies of scale, and why I oppose the excessive use of state education money for “consultants” to either existing public or charter schools (who primarily exist to perpetuate their own livelihoods). Public auditing of charter schools and existing public schools should be widely available.

Kids should come first. To steal from kids from impoverished or working class backgrounds who simply want to flee bad local schools but end up in a badly or criminally-run charter school is abominable. And teachers should have the freedom to teach the state-mandated curriculum in the way that’s worked well and is meaningful to them without being locked into curriculum that, however well-designed, imposes another kind of uniformity that many parents and children seek to escape from their unresponsive local schools.

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DISCLOSURE: As stated at the top of this post, I and four other bloggers attended a showing of Waiting for Superman as guests of the charter home school company, K12. The other bloggers are (host) SoCalMom, YvonneInLA, Elise’sRamblings, and Sarah’sBlog. I appreciate K12.com’s generosity in enabling me to see a matinee at my favorite Hollywood theatre.

I look forward to learning more about charter schools and how they’re run. I’m genuinely excited about charters as laboratories for experimentation and I know teachers at my child’s public school borrow and incorporate tools that have been tested in private, charter, and existing public schools. At the same time, I believe taxpayer support for public schools, where all can receive a tuition-free education, is probably the single most precious gift I personally (my parents as well) have received from America and regardless of what personal choices I make for my own child’s schooling (in this case public elementary), I happily pay taxes toward everyone’s education.

5 thoughts on “Waiting For Superman: A Review Essay

  1. doreet on

    You stated: And while you are a progressive, you are also a parent trying to avoid having your kids ground up in the gears of inequality. We would never call ourselves as progressive and we understand our daughters’ education starts and ends with us. although we do not have the skills or abilities (or personality type) to teach our child, as long as we do everything we can to advocate for her, to enroll her in enrichment summer day camps (most have scholarships’ for kids who go to title one schools) and bring her to the library every week (yes libraries are still open two evenings a week) we are confident she will get a outstanding education.

  2. I have so many thoughts on this, but it’s your blog; I’m a mere commenter. So let me just say a few things. First of all, I LOVE your idea of incremental tenure. That sounds like a balanced, reasoned response. But, as Jon Stewart would say, people don’t seem interested in rational responses anymore. We need to get back to being more interested in actually solving problems instead of the blame game.
    As for charters, I think you know that my daughter had one fabulous year at a charter, but because of some Board issues, I pulled her from it. But I will argue that charters can actually be better funded than public schools because anyone can choose to contribute without the strings that most school districts have attached to most of their funding. I do think that, as long as so many of our schools aren’t doing a stellar job all the way around, then we need the option of charters available.
    And I have to disagree with the previous commenter. I would very much like to feel like my daughters’ schools and all of their teachers, counselors, etc. are my partners in my children’s education. Unfortunately, the reality has been that we are not always.
    As thoughtful and detailed as this essay was, it still only merely scratches the surface.

  3. April,
    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Is your child happy and doing well at her current school? I hope so, no matter what kind of school it is.

    I see a place for charters as one of many choices available to parents. Kids need different things at different times. Some environments suit them better than others. They have idiosyncracies that need attending to. Some of those may include quirks that require specialized programs or approaches. In an ideal world, public school would be a baseline for a very good education and their overall numbers should stay the same or increase. But private and public charter schools will never go away, and that’s just a reality. Nor should they; an education is seldom one size fits all.

    What Waiting for Superman does do is focus attention on how we fund our public schools and what we expect them to do. The documentary isn’t the end-all, be-all of what kinds of solutions are possible. And I agree with you that my essay likewise only scratches the surface. There’s so much more to discuss and do, and it lies outside what this one personal blog is capable of.

    Which is why I’ve been thinking of how to sustain this kind of attention. No clear ideas yet, but stay tuned.

  4. Tak on

    It is sad to say, as long as politicians and rich businessmen have their hands in the education cookie jar, everything will goes down the drain. That being said, I remember magnet school works very well back then, however, as ironic as it sounds, because it works, it got shut down. We will see how American Education take it’s turn in the near future, educations are the foundation of the society, but someone higher up (the rich and the political well connected) will try to keep the general population down, and we suffer that great inequality when it comes to education. Don’t forget this, sooner or later, this society (I am referring to the good O’ U.S. of A) will only have two classes exist, the Rich and the Poor, and there will not be a middle class. I just hope charter school won’t suffer the same fate as it’s successful predecessor – the magnet school. I know it just wishful thinking…

    • Tak on

      I am sorry for any grammatical and spelling error, it is too early in the morning.

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