Fixing the Schools, One Screening at a Time, with CDM's Waiting for Superman Soiree

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As the education policy call-to-arms doc Waiting for Superman has been released across the country, educators and would-be reformers everywhere have been doing the thing you do when a Davis Guggenheim documentary (or a Mel Gibson film in the original Aramaic) comes out: special screenings and post-movie panel talks to take the message to the streets.

DISD trustee Edwin Flores and state Rep. Rafael Anchía got in on the action last week at the Magnolia as part of one panel. Last night, it was Central Dallas Ministries' turn, with another screening at the Angelika followed by a panel of seven folks picked to represent every perspective in the school reform debate (except a student, which would have been crazy).

Why was CDM putting hosting a special screening of the doc? As their Gerald Britt explained before the movie: "Education really is the civil rights issue of the 21st Century... We're passionate about every child's right to a good education, to a great education." He added that he hoped the documentary would "fuel and stimulate a great conversation," and with that, the lights dimmed and we were all treated to trailers for Conviction (appropriate, sure) and Burlesque (why not).

Following four kids through charter school lotteries and checking in with reform pushers like Harlem Children's Zone's Geoffrey Canada and Washington schools honcho Michelle Rhee, the film runs through recent developments in public school policy and how teachers' unions have pushed back against reform efforts and made inept teachers unfireable. President Bush's "childrens do learn" line drew laughs nearly as big as those that followed Guggenheim's look at a No Child Left Behind deadline: "We have four years left to reach our goal of 100 percent proficiency in reading and math." Without dwelling on what makes a teacher good or bad, Guggenheim walked through school districts' answers to bad teachers they can't fire, from swapping "lemons" from school to school each year to New York City's $100 million system of rubber rooms.

As the credits rolled, the panel -- among them, former DISD trustee Jose Plata, Uplift charter chain founder Rosemary Perlmeter and local American Federation of Teachers rep Rena Honea -- took their seats in front of the screen, and we all spent a while getting good and mic'd up. What followed was a lightning-quick look at how well the movie's union-taming reform-now message fits Dallas schools.

The News' Tod Robberson, who mused at length on the film late last month, moderated the talk. Along with some big admirers, the film's of course drawn plenty of detractors, especially from teachers' union reps.

"This movie could not seem to find one public school that's outstanding," Honea said. "And in Dallas there are many."

Guggenheim's biggest beef with the unions is the tenure system that makes it nearly impossible to fire a lousy teacher -- something Honea pointed out isn't part of teachers' contracts in Texas (state law prohibits teachers' collective bargaining). Still, as Turner 12 founder John Carter said, "I know we've got some great teachers in this district, but I also know we've got some teachers who are teachers because they get three months off in the summer."

Plata didn't hesitate to point a finger at DISD, agreeing with one of Guggenheim's other big complaints in the film about bureaucratic waste that's built up around schools. "The problem is the culture in central administration," he said. "We need to keep the culture from downtown out of our schools."

That was Honea's answer to a question about how teachers would feel about lengthening school days, adding school on Saturday and shortening summers, as in some of the most popular charter chains. "I'm not sure it's necessary," she said, and anyway, she doubted the money was there to keep public schools open longer. "If teachers could teach during the school day without outside pressures, they'd be free" to get down to the real business of education.
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