‘Waiting for Superman,’ a Must-See

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Are we finally outraged enough over the state of our public schools?

Are we as a nation about to get serious about the sorry state of our public schools? Where is the outrage? Where is the compassion? Maybe most crucial – where is the enlightened self-interest?

Robert Gordon is a dismal scientist at Northwestern University; in other words, he teaches economics. True to that characterization, he’s pretty down on our future.   According to Business Week, Gordon expects per capita GDP will expand at only 1.5% per year between 2007 and 2027. That would be the lowest twenty-year growth rate since the late 1800s. It compares to average growth of 2.44% between 1928 and 1972 and 1.93% from 1972 to 2007.Why this gloomy forecast?

Gordon’s main concern is the absence of significant productivity gains. He does not foresee a future tech breakthrough equivalent to the Internet revolution, and he considers the imminent retirement of the Baby Boomers a threat to productivity. While I would debate his pessimistic view of technology, the prognosis on worker capabilities is tough to argue. He argues that our aging workforce is inevitably going to be replaced by one that is less well-educated – at a great cost to the country.

Our schools have slid unobstructed from excellence to mediocrity and then to widespread failure. The data points are there for all to see: declining graduation rates, falling competence in reading and math, slippage in international rankings and, now, an incapable workforce. There are indeed jobs being created in certain parts of the country. There are, we hear, not enough young people with math or reading skills sufficient to fill them.

How shocking is this? Shocking enough to excite the nation about a somewhat wonkish documentary that details the shortcomings of our public schools. “Waiting for Superman” is a must-see for every parent, voter and taxpayer. In relentlessly logical fashion, the film lays out the causes of our schools’ degradation and the inevitable cost to the nation. Microsoft founder Bill Gates appears in the film, linking educational success to the country’s future. To his credit, Mr. Gates has put a lot of his money where his mouth is; his foundation has given billions to U.S. schools.

A recent article in the Financial Times reports on the jobs picture in Rockford, Illinois, a town long (unfortunately) called the “screw capital of the U.S.” Large companies that manufactured in Rockford closed their doors or moved overseas decades ago; today the unemployment rate in the town is 16% – one of the highest in the nation. The town’s mayor says he wants to promote entrepreneurship, to attract U.S. and foreign companies to set up shop in Rockford, and to create “a skilled workforce.” He is quoted as saying that the key to skills is education. “It’s a fiction to see politicians suggesting that the government is going to create jobs when three of our four high schools aren’t graduating half the kids.”

That is the message of “Superman”. Too many of our high schools are not graduating kids with the skills needed to get into college – or even to assume menial tasks. The movie paints an unflattering picture of the teachers’ unions, who over the past several decades demanded ever-higher compensation and ever-greater tenure protection. The narrator describes the infamous Rubber Room in New York, where teachers sent for misconduct used to routinely spend years doing absolutely nothing – while collecting full pay – because it is virtually impossible to fire a teacher. (After a blistering exposé in the New Yorker the Rubber Room was closed – and now those jobless teachers twiddle their thumbs elsewhere.)

New York is not alone. Early in his term as California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger attempted to limit tenure to those who had taught for three years instead of two, and to tie teacher pay to student success. He was crushed. Writing in 2005, teacher Barbara Kerr complained that she (like most other teachers in California) was paying $810 in yearly dues to three separate unions – the NEA, the California Teachers Association and a local union – and that dues were hiked expressly to combat the governor’s initiative. Kerr was irate that the union never surveyed teachers about the increase or the proposed changes in evaluations. Like most good teachers, Kerr might have welcomed merit pay.

Why have our political leaders so frequently promised education reform and then failed to deliver? Because the teachers’ unions have been among the largest political campaign donors for many years, and have gigantic clout. From 1989 to 2010, the National Education Association spent nearly $31 million on political campaigns, ranking number 8 in the top all-time donor list, according to OpenSecrets.org. The American Federation of Teachers spent $28 million during the same period, earning them thirteenth place. Some 93% of NEA donations and 98% of AFT money went to Democrats. These figures don’t include vast spending on “get out the vote” drives and other initiatives.

Maybe, this time will be different. The Obama administration has encouraged school reforms through the Race to the Top program, which encouraged some positive reforms.   At the same time, the excessive demands of the teachers’ unions during an economic slump are angering taxpayers. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie has built a nationwide following by daring to confront the unions over pay hikes and benefits that the state can no longer afford. At the same time, thousands of Americans will be outraged – truly sickened and outraged – by a movie that shows parents betting their kids’ futures on a lottery.

Politicians, parents and taxpayers, surely that’s a combination powerful enough to confront the teachers’ unions. Or must we really wait for Superman?

Editor’s Note: Liz Peek is a financial columnist.

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