Saturday, February 26, 2011

Waiting for "Superman," Protests in Wisconsin, and Personal Reflections

Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for ‘Superman’” is a trenchant and timely documentary on the myriad problems plaguing the U.S. public school system. The film’s investigation of the deleterious effects of teachers’ unions struck me as especially poignant in light of the recent protests in Madison, Wisconsin. Teachers there shutdown several school districts as they marched on the capital to protest Governor Scott Walker’s plan to limit the powers of the unions.

The proposed legislation would require teachers in Wisconsin to pay their fair share for the generous health care and pension plans they receive from the state. Is this so unreasonable in a time of state and federal budget shortfalls and deficits? Private sector workers, including private school teachers such as myself, live with this financial hardship already so why should public school teachers be exempt, especially when their salaries are derived from taxpayers’ money?!

The plan would also remove the unions’ ability to bargain collectively for benefits and work rules beyond wage considerations. This is important because without this measure the unions would merely negotiate away any temporary fixes the governor and legislature might implement to constrain costs in the short term. Also, as I already mentioned, this would not affect teachers’ power to bargain for wages, the real purpose for unions in the first place.

Finally, the bill also empowers teachers not to be beholden to union bosses because it gives them the power to choose not to pay union dues if they opt out. If you can believe it, currently even non-union members pay union dues, incredible! It also requires there to be an annual vote from all union members about the continued existence of the union. If unions serve such a vital function, why should the union bosses fear such a vote?

Guggenheim’s film draws attention to the vast pile of money that public school bureaucracies and administrations around the country waste each year. It also highlights the near impossibility of firing unionized teachers. These two problems obstruct any meaningful solution to the failure of public schools. If you cannot get rid of bad teachers who continue to draw away critical resources, how can you ever have better schools? Also, once a corrupt and moribund culture takes root it proves exceedingly difficult to deracinate it.

The film’s biggest flaw is probably its promotion of charter schools as some kind of panacea or nostrum for the problem. While it is true that some charter schools have shown phenomenal improvement in their students, most do no better than their traditional public school counterparts, and some even do worse. There is abundant empirical evidence of this fact on the web and in educational journals.

Another weakness of the movie is its failure to address the value of school vouchers. Private and parochial schools have done better than their public school counterparts for a long time now, but many are having to shutter their doors because of rising costs. Previously, religious priests, brothers, and nuns artificially kept the tuition down for many years by not earning a standard income, but their numbers have been drastically reduced over the last few decades. These schools are now out of the price range for many, and as their enrollments slowly or precipitously drop, administrators are faced with no other option than to close. School vouchers would give parents saddled with “dropout factories” another choice. It would not cover the full cost of private or parochial school, but it may be enough to close the financial sufficiently for them to be able to afford an education for their child that otherwise would be an impossibility.

Lastly, the movie does not tackle the elephant in the room, the breakdown of the family in America. I would argue that this more than anything else is the crisis of our time. Master teachers and exemplary school systems can do much for students of all shapes and sizes from all kinds of backgrounds, but they will always be a poor substitute for broken homes. Until we as a society do something to combat the dilapidated institution of marriage in this country, students will continue to suffer and to underperform because parents are the primary teachers. If the primary teachers abdicate their responsibility for whatever reason, then the odds are so stacked against a student from the outset that it is a miracle for him or her to rise beyond his or her situation to achieve success in school and life.

1 comment:

  1. As a Catholic I cheered up when catholic bishops SUPPORTED Wisconsin teacher union in their fight to bargain collectively. YOu should stand up with the worker, the little guy and remember, the teachers took a pay cut while the corporate profits soared this year. They sit on tons of money claiming the labor have to take more cuts. Jesus would stand up with the teachers in Wisconsin and not with Koch brothers. The Wall Street profits are up 720% this year.
    John Paul II supported unions. Remember what Jesus said about the greed and the rich. They have the litttle chance to go to haeven as long as they cut the labor, the teachers,the nurses, the litlle guys under the disguise od fiscal resposibility while stashing the money in their already opulent bank accounts.