Waiting for a Superman Who Sent His Children to Private School
You can get so confused
that you'll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
Since it’s getting so much water cooler talk amongst educators, I swung by the Red Box and dropped a buck on the new docutragedy on education, Waiting for Superman. I could not help but to be struck by a few things, as follow. No, this has nothing to do with my grad school courses. I am taking a lesson from the federal bureaucracy and unilaterally extending the reach of Blerkins to encompass this new OSHA-approved area of public debate. After all, [reader now imagines me imitating Jesse Jackson] I have a mandate, to communicate, about how to educate. Keep hope alive.
Things must really be bad if you can get this kind of airtime for a message which claims that the public schools have failed. Perhaps it is nothing more than the fact that things have become so dreadfully self-evident it simply can no longer be denied. It’s like the ill effects of smoking or drunk driving (neither of which strike me as being inappropriate analogies here). It is perhaps not insignificant that my eight year old son, who (more or less) watched the program with me, took one look at the images on the screen and said, “I don’t want to go to that school.” Ah, from the mouth of babes.
Despite all this rhetoric (and that is all it is) I expect that ultimately public schools will fare about as well as the national economy. Both suffer from a fundamentally flawed mismanagement philosophy. Both think that a vast, entrenched, and centralized bureaucracy is the best way to oversee a process or product (depending on how you want to conceive of it) which is inherently diverse and decentralized. Nothing is more grating than to see “consolidated” school districts, or the even more overtly socialized “unified” school districts, all managed from a central office. Even if you argued that this can work if you have a small handful of schools with class size limits of twenty-two, what happens when you quadruple the number of students and keep the same number of school buildings, thereby raising occupancy to a level which rivals the Kennedy Center? What about the annual bond levies you have to undertake to pay for the construction of these edu-camps, and the tax increases on property and business owners which result?
For the past few decades the scapegoat has been money, but all private school educators know that we do much more on far less than any public school does. Superman seems to get that, and recognizes that “the system” is to blame…I think that is partly correct, but the film does not dig deeply enough, doubtless because they would begin prickling more than just teacher unions. Admittedly, those aren’t helping. But neither is forced integration, forced bussing, or forced matriculation at crappy schools (yes, that is the official No Child Gets Ahead term for a school which is, well, crappy). No, I will not quantify that. I know a crappy restaurant when I eat there – even if I escape the food poisoning I will still never go back. Perhaps we could adapt Potter Stewart’s famous definition for pornography: “I know a bad school when I see it.” I hold as a matter of principle that the state (and this includes the local school board) should not be permitted to use coercion for the enforcement school attendance, which is ultimately a family matter, even if the state can claim some interest. That interest should be limited to incentives; coercion should be reserved for the criminal and civil codes. To the degree that I am willing to grant the premise of publicly funded schools, I definitely think we have to start talking about a total breakup of the educational monopoly and go to a model where you have a competitive free for all.
Yes, that should be as messy as it sounds. There should be honors schools for the smart kids, humanities schools for the artsy kids, techno schools for the sci-fi kids, and votech schools for the tradeskids. And in our culture of “differences” I’m even in favor of a school that tracks standing right next door to one that doesn’t. We’ll throw in a special needs school, an ADD school, a Montessori school, a classical school, an IB school, and an athletic school. All in the same district. Let’s even let ‘em keep their per student enrollment-based funding formula. Now, may the best school win. Ready, go! It isn’t egalitarian, it doesn’t offer tenure, it has lots of merit pay. Stop back in five years, and I’ll show you the highest performing school district in the country. Stick around for a generation, and I’ll show you the most academically prepared citizenry in the world.
Of course, there is a whole morality and family values thing in play here that no one is talking about. All I’m going to say in this forum is that if your seventh grade girl is dressed like the centerfold of a certain not-for-seventh-grade publication, then there are larger issues here which have to be addressed, and which probably can’t be solved by reform in public education. But in fairness to the argument, you kinda have to fight the battle in front of you. That said, this is (at least) a two-front war; and the Church certainly has a role to play. All social change (whether good or bad) begins in the pulpit; and this fact has enormous implications for this debate.
When we consider the state of things in our nation’s public schools, the makers of Waiting for Superman are right: it would probably take Superman to fix things at this point. Unfortunately, it will probably be a very long wait given that Superman is no longer available for the job, what with having given up his citizenship and all. Perhaps it tragically ironic that the very superhero they envision coming to their rescue would doubtless send his children to a private school for students of “exceptional abilities”. The other Saviour with whom I am acquainted preferred Jewish religious schooling. On the list of saviours, that only seems to leave…hmmm, let’s see…maybe Donald Trump?