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"Go Public" — Finally, A Film That Celebrates Public Schools

A new documentary is a welcome antidote to the bleak and misleading message of "Waiting for Superman" and "Won't Back Down."

Photo Credit: Salcedo


Copyright, Reprinted with permission.

In the battle over public education, the corporate foundations and right-wing billionaires who favor privatization, charters, and vouchers have funded and promoted several films, including "Waiting for Superman" and "Won't Back Down," as part of their propaganda campaign. Both view public schools as a total failure, beyond redemption and reform. A new documentary, " Go Public: A Day in the Life of an American School District", is a welcome antidote. "Go Public" celebrates public schools without ignoring their troubles.

Ever since the emergence of talking pictures, schools have been a major subject of both Hollywood movies and documentary films. One consistent theme of Hollywood portrayals of schools - from "Blackboard Jungle" (1955), "Up the Down Staircase" (1967) and "Stand and Deliver" (1988) to "Mr. Holland's Opus" (1995), "October Sky" (1999) and "Freedom Writers" (2007) - has been the idealistic teacher fighting to serve his and her students against overwhelming odds, including uncaring administrators, cynical colleagues, a stultifying required curriculum that crushes the spirit of teachers and students alike, dilapidated conditions, budget cuts, unruly and hostile students, or students suffering from the symptoms of poverty or neglect. The underlying message is that while occasionally a rare teacher can light a spark in a few students, our public schools are failing most of the students they are supposed to serve. Most documentaries about education - from Frederick Wiseman's "High School" (1968) to Bill Moyers' "Children in America's Schools" (1996) - paint a similarly grim picture.

Grim, but not hopeless. All these films hold out the prospect that change is possible if society is willing to honestly confront the social, economic, and bureaucratic conditions that have made public education less effective than it could and should be.

In contrast, the two most recent high-profile films about public education - the documentary "Waiting for Superman" (2010) and Hollywood's "Won't Back Down" (2012), starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis - portray our public schools as beyond reform and redemption.

"Waiting for Superman" - directed by Davis Guggenheim, who made "An Inconvenient Truth" about Al Gore's environmental crusade - portrays the public school system as a total failure. It follows several students as they attempt to get into a private charter school that is superior in every way. Guggenheim skillfully tells the stories of these children and their families so that we can't help but root for them to win the lottery and get into the charter schools that, we're led to believe, will unleash their potential rather than stifle their creativity. The film boils down the problems facing public education as simply one of bad teachers, whose jobs are protected by corrupt unions. The film demonizes teachers' unions as the destroyer of public schools, while celebrating charters as the panacea for what ails American education. It reduces most teachers and their union leaders to one-dimensional, cartoon-like figures.

Not surprisingly, the film's villain is Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. One of its heroes is Geoffrey Canada, charismatic founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, which has raised millions of dollars from business, foundations and government to lavishly fund charter schools and social services in a small part of that New York neighborhood. Another hero is Michelle Rhee, who served for several years as the antiunion superintendent of Washington, DC,'s public schools and now runs StudentsFirst, which lobbies for the same free-market approach to education that "Waiting for Superman" extols.

In "Won't Back Down," Gyllenhaal portrays a working-class mother frustrated by her inner city public school's unwillingness to place her dyslexic daughter in a class with a teacher who can help her succeed despite her learning disability. Gyllenhall eventually leads a group of other frustrated parents to utilize a "parent trigger" law that allows parents to turn their "failing" public school into a privately-managed charter school. Their efforts are opposed by the teachers' union, which the film portrays as insensitive, thuggish, corrupt and the chief obstacle to successful schools.