Superman Versus Teachers Unions? [Updated]

A new film from the director of An Inconvenient Truth is rewarding charter schools and getting one Texas teachers' union upset.


Updated 1:06 p.m. to include an interview with Texas AFT’s Louis Malfaro

Up until a couple days ago, I thought Oprah Winfrey was almost universally liked. I mean, admittedly I don’t really watch her show, but when Houston’s YES Prep charter school called to tell me they were receiving one million dollars from the queen of talk shows, I just kind of nodded along. After all, she gave all those people cars—why should I be surprised she’s giving a successful charter a million dollars?

Silly me. It turns out Winfrey’s gift to YES Prep is part of a much larger effort, to raise awareness on the flaws in American education and promote the documentary Waiting for “Superman”. The documentary, which will come out on Friday in selected theaters, follows five students who are trying to avoid impoverished traditional public schools. Oprah’s million dollar gifts went to six successful charter schools. All of this is supposed to get Americans fired about about the flaws in our education system.

It’s also got some teachers’ unions ready to march.

“There’s a documentary coming soon to a movie theater near you that portrays public school teachers and their unions as the villains responsible for low student achievement,” read a rather scary-sounding press release from state teachers’ union Texas AFT on Monday.  While the release praises certain parts of the film—a call for national standards and increased emphasis on literacy—Texas AFT isn’t happy about the perceived emphasis on charter schools and school choice as a large scale solution. “Nothing is allowed on the screen to detract from the idea that a student in quest of good teaching had better win the lottery to attend a high-performing, privately run charter school,” the release says.

3 … 2 … 1 … Action?

Based on the trailer and information on the film’s website, it’s obvious that Waiting for “Superman” is meant to provoke reactions. After all, it by the director of An Inconvenient Truth, and from the trailer, it’s clearly meant to provoke reaction. “Oprah” bills it as the “the movie that could revolutionize schools.” In case that’s not enough, the talk show’s site is filled with statistics on how American schools are falling behind. But the effort has gotten some educators fired up about the movie’s main premises: that there are ineffective educators and we need to focus more on effective charter schools and school choice. The movie hasn’t even been released yet, but lines are already being drawn. (In a meta-sort of way, I think this controversy could basically be its own movie.)

While AFT rallies its troops, charter school advocates are beaming.  YES Prep spokesperson Jill Willis said the movie’s efforts make school officials optimistic. “We’re encouraged that there’s this open dialogue about ‘what is good public education?'” she told me. “What does it take?”

It will be interesting to see what the film chooses to highlight and what solutions it offers. Based on the synopses on its website and on Oprah, the film follows five students trying to get an education, who are presumably failed by the system. The movie website isn’t shy about saying that ineffective teachers get a pass in traditional public schools and that charter schools offer exciting paths forward. School choice is certainly a big theme in the documentary’s promotion; the “Oprah” site has a full section on parental options and the official website proclaims, “A child’s destiny should not be determined by his or her zip code.”

My guess is, like everything else policy-oriented, the movie will sink or swim depending on whether the director allowed for some nuance. Will it engage with the complexities or pick a scapegoat? Either way the film will likely be successful—Oprah, after all, is more popular figurehead than Al Gore, and An Inconvenient Truth did pretty well.

In the mean time, we might get a better look at the strained relationship between teachers’ unions and charter schools. Teachers’ unions are big groups that cater to their members—teachers. What’s in the best interest of teachers can sometimes come into conflict with reform efforts by parents or community groups. Not shockingly, there are often tensions when it comes to efforts like standardized testing and performance-based pay. When it comes to charters, there’s certainly a perception that unions don’t like charter schools. When I asked Texas AFT spokesman Rob D’Amico about it, he pointed to AFT’s early support for the charters as “laboratories of innovation.” But he also wasn’t exactly shy about his criticisms.

“So many of them are flagged by mismanagement and financial problems,” he said. “They just don’t perform up to the expectations that we expect of superior schools. A majority of them under-perform, both nationally and in Texas.”

It’s easy to see what he’s talking about. As YES Prep expands further—Willis says they’ll use the extra million to add another thousand students to the 4,300 already enrolled, another Houston charter school has run out of money. The Texas Education Agency shut down Benji’s Special Education Academy last week (Although the school is still trying to stay open, despite losing accreditation with the state.)

Willis argues that such failures have little in common with YES Prep, and that successful charters can offer models for the rest of the country. “It’s not just a little boutique,” she says. “We’re not a small operation. We’re growing and we’re growing with quality.” The results are undoubtedly impressive. The school requires acceptance to a four-year college in order to graduate, and in ten years, seniors have all met the challenge, Willis says. Texas Monthly‘s profile of the Harmony Schools show similarly impressive charter success.

But charter schools are not going to take all kids, and union folks argue these reform efforts dismiss traditional public schools. When Louis Malfaro, secretary-treasurer at Texas AFT, left the movie with “a kind of a mix of anger and outrage and some just dumbfounded-ness.”

“It’s kind of a polemic piece that exalts charter schools and that lays the blame for the challenges public schools face at the feet of teachers,” he says. Malfaro says the movie fails to show any good public schools, and paints parents as passive consumers rather than engaged members of a school community. In the film, he says, teachers’ unions are deemed responsible for keeping bad teachers in the classroom.

Willis, who has already seen advance screenings of the movie, is hesitant to say the film criticizes teachers’ unions. “I think it kind of depends on how you see it,” she says. “I would definitely say it’s controversial.”

Keep your eyes open, and if you get a chance to see the movie, let me know what you think. The film will open in Dallas October 1 and in Houston October 8.