The new documentary Waiting for "Superman", which premiered last night at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., follows several American students in suffering school districts and the reformers trying to fight and change the education system. But it was Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools and one of the film's subjects, who vocalized perhaps what many in the audience had been thinking during the screening.
"Yesterday's election results were devastating...for the children of Washington, D.C.," Rhee said during the post-viewing discussion panel.
Tuesday's Democratic primary for D.C. mayor saw incumbent Adrian Fenty fall to city council chairman Vincent Gray, an election seen as a possible referendum on the Fenty-backed Rhee. As Waiting for "Superman" shows, Rhee has been a dynamic, positive force in the abysmal public school system in the nation's capital. Unafraid to close failing schools, fire bad teachers and administrators, and support charter schools, she achieved a big victory this year when DCPS negotiated contracts with the teachers unions to institute an opt-in incentive pay system.
An aggressive effort and nearly $1 million from the American Federation of Teachers helped defeat Fenty, meaning Rhee will lose one of her strongest advocates in the city government. AFT president Randi Weingarten also sat on the panel, which included Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the film's maker, Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth fame.
Weingarten has said that Waiting for "Superman" is "inaccurate, inconsistent, and incomplete," but offered some praise for the film last night. "The movie actually is creating far more dialogue," she said, echoing Guggenheim's stated intention that he made his movie "for regular people...who want better schools for our kids."
Asked about her concerns that the mayoral primary results will discourage education reforms in D.C. for the future, Rhee insisted that pulling back "is not the lesson" reformers should take. "Now is the time to lean forward," she said.
And leaning forward in the fight against the teachers unions and bureaucracy that stand in the way of ideas like charter schools and incentive pay is exactly what Guggenheim and the film's producers would like for Americans to do.
Make sure to read Sonny Bunch's review of Waiting for "Superman" from the July 26 issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.
(Disclosure: One of the film's production partners, Walden Media, is a subsidiary of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, an affiliate of THE WEEKLY STANDARD's parent company, Clarity Media Group.)