Last Friday I saw Waiting for Superman at the E Street Cinema in DC after it finally opened in theaters across the nation. Many of the key points in this heart-breaking documentary echoed recent statements we’ve heard from President Obama. Is President Obama going to be our Superman?
Much like director Davis Guggenheim, who at the beginning of the movie drives past three public schools to take his children to a private school, President Obama sends his daughters to a private school, because “the D.C. public school systems are struggling.” Who can blame him? No parents, given the choice, would voluntarily send their children to some of the worst education facilities in the nation.
Unfortunately, most parents don’t have that choice. Parents lacking the financial resources to send their children to private schools have to rely on options like charter schools and vouchers, which are often underfunded and have long waiting lists. In fact, admission into high-achieving charter schools is decided by a random lottery, because spots are scarce.
The documentary illustrates the stories of 5 families whose children’s education is in the hands of Fortuna. Of the 5 protagonists, only 2 get lucky. President Obama, who is dismayed with the lottery system urges, like so many Presidents before him, to undertake widespread education reform. He wants to extend the school year by a month, raise the standards in the teaching profession, and even suggests (oh, no don’t say it) firing teachers who “aren’t doing a good job.“
While I applaud your intentions, Mr. President, I can’t help it but question them. The death of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program still lingers in my memory. While you publicly recognize the sad state of D.C.’s public schools, you didn’t fight to preserve the, however limited, option for the district’s families to choose a better education for their children. A limited option is better than no option.
You say “just because a school is a charter school, that doesn’t mean it’s a good school.” True, but that statement is missing the point. Just because a business is private does not mean it’s a profitable business, either. It is the incentive structure underlying the public versus private enterprise that makes the difference. The free market is exceptionally efficient at weeding out the bad enterprises from the good ones. A bureaucrat, no matter how well-intentioned, can simply not compete.
However, good charters can be “laboratories of excellence,” you concede. So what do you intend to do with these lessons of excellence? The latest National Center for Education Evaluation report showed significant gains in reading scores for D.C. voucher recipients, and that parents were more satisfied with D.C. voucher school academic performance and safety, compared to D.C. public schools. Additionally, the D.C. voucher program was more cost-efficient than public schooling; the $7,500 vouchers amounted to half of what it costs to send children to public schools. Nevertheless you remained silent when the program was killed in Congress. Laboratories of excellence, whose lessons are ignored, are lost opportunities for education reform.
Even if you put on a bi-partisan red and blue cape to push for education reform, I don’t believe that you’ll be our Superman.