Public education's on my mind these days.

I never really considered what my feelings were about the subject until it became personal, which is pretty much the way it happens for most people.  Sure, I had some general feelings about it, based on my growing up and attending both public and private schools at different points in my life.  But the idea of activism over the subject of education never occurred to me.

Not until I started trying to figure out my son Toshiro's education.

And not until I saw Davis Guggenheim's new film "Waiting For 'Superman'".

I talked to another critic outside afterwards who seemed to think all of the information in Guggenheim's film was "Been there, done that," and if that's true, I salute him for his exceptional knowledge of the problems our students and their parents face these days.  Maybe there are other documentaries that deal with the same general subject, but for me, "Waiting For 'Superman'" was an eye-opener, and there's a stretch of it that is the most emotionally difficult real-life material I've seen in a film since "Dear Zachary."

The film lays out many of the problems that parents face when trying to find a place for students if they want to use the public system or, more importantly, if they need to use it.  I feel like an asshole even suggesting that I have a choice.  I probably don't.  I sent Toshi to a private pre-school, and when he comes back to the U.S. in January, I'll send him to the same place for the second half of kindergarten.  But beyond that?  I don't think I can do it and put Allen in school at the same time.  I'm a movie critic.  I'm not wealthy.  I'm working as much as I can on the side to make ends meet.  I'm carrying a mortgage, a family.  I want the best for my sons, but I have to be realistic.  I can't count on being able to afford private education for them.  I need to get them into the public system in a way that works.  I need to figure it out on their behalf, even though it has nothing to do with the system I attended as a kid.  Even starting to do that is daunting, and I'm almost a year into my research and I still don't know what to think.

The film also lays out answers, and the title is a wry example of the sort of thinking that typically goes on, a sort of putting things off in hopes that someone else will solve them.  The film doesn't have all the answers, but it does push viewers to be active, to get involved.  Unfortunately, in order to really push you to action, Guggenheim has to show you something to upset you, and he uses school lotteries to do it.  I didn't really understand this process, in which families compete by lottery for spots in desirable schools.  Until you get to know a family and understand what it means to them to get this education for their son or their daughter, only to see that dream shattered during a formal ceremony in which children's futures are determined by random chance, you do not truly understand how screwed up the system is.  Guggenheim makes sure you get to know several of these families, and he shows you people who get in and people who don't, and he's great at making you feel both that high and that low in a very personal way.

He also frustrates by showing what happened in Washington D.C. when Michelle Rhee tried to reform the system.  He's very clear about laying out what worked about her proposals and her plans, and then he lays blame square on the teacher's unions for blocking Rhee in her efforts to shake up the process.  I understand the need for teacher's unions, and I'm certainly not anti-union, but I think we need to completely overhaul the way things work for the good of the kids, and the kids are far more important than any union or job contract or negotiation.

This is not the definitive film on American education, and I'm not sure there really could be one, but it is a smart piece of agit-prop that picks the right targets and hits those targets with precise aim.  I think it's better than Guggenheim's Oscar-winning "An Inconvenient Truth," and I strongly encourage anyone remotely affected by this subject to see this as soon as you can.

"Waiting For 'Superman'" opens in limited release this Friday.


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