I missed last Sunday's Oscar telecast. I was too busy watching the dead-solid lock for the award for Best Documentary Film Not Even Nominated: the horrifying, heartbreaking education movie "Waiting for Superman."
At first glance, you might suppose that "Waiting for Superman" is the kind of movie that Oscar voters would love, a poster child for Hollywood liberalism. It follows the struggles of five kids - four of them from hard-luck inner-city neighborhoods - to get into decent schools. Daisy, an earnest fifth-grader in East Los Angeles who wants to be a doctor, has already written to her favorite colleges. Another fifth-grader, Anthony, is desperate to avoid the clutches of the Washington neighborhood where his father died of a drug overdose.
Francisco, a first-grader in the South Bronx, shyly admits that he likes math, no matter what the other kids in his trashed-out school think. Five-year-old Bianca couldn't attend her kindergarten graduation because her single mom was behind on tuition payments to her parochial school. And though the Silicon Valley suburb where the fifth kid - Emily, an, eighth-grader - is considerably less harrowing than the others, her forlorn attempts to escape a school where her poor test scores will track her into dead-end classes are nonetheless poignant.
What these children are trying to escape are schools where failure is literally a way of life. Daisy's plucky ambitions for medical school will have to overcome a cold statistical reality: Less than three out of every hundred students who graduate from her neighborhood high school have completed the courses necessary for admission to a four-year college. And if those numbers are discouraging, consider the statistics of a neighboring high school where 40,000 of 60,000 students who've entered over the years have flunked out. In one of the film's most chilling moments, "Waiting for Superman" displays an animated map showing the locations of thousands of such "failure factories" across the United States, poisoning their neighborhood like toxic waste dumps as they spit out broken kids.
That's the fate the families in "Waiting for Superman" are frantically seeking to avoid. Penned in by school boundaries, lost in bureaucratic quagmires that take little notice of aptitude and less of desire, all five kids in the end are reduced to bingo numbers: Their futures are staked on being picked in long-shot lotteries for the few spaces available in high-performing charter schools in their areas. But "Waiting for Superman" is a documentary, not a fairy tale, and the final scenes will make you cry. This is not what America is supposed to be about.
So why wasn't "Waiting for Superman" nominated for an Oscar as best documentary? The answer was plain during Sunday's ceremony, when several of the winners gave shout-outs to the belligerent public-employee unions laying siege to the capitol in Wisconsin. Hollywood, which ought to give itself a Lifetime Achievement Oscar for its dedication in portraying itself as a town of regular working Joes, is thoroughly unionized. And "Waiting for Superman" casts a hard eye on the role of teachers' unions in wrecking American schools.
It includes footage shot in New York City's notorious "rubber rooms," where hundreds of teachers accused of misconduct ranging from drunkenness on the job to sexual molestation of students lounge around playing cards or sleeping, on full salary, while union lawyers drag out their disciplinary hearings for years at a time. (The rooms, which became an embarrassment even to the union after the public got wind of them, have been closed since the movie was shot. The teachers now hang around their campuses instead.) It includes an interview with former Milwaukee school superintendant Howard Fuller, who was astonished to learn that he couldn't fire even a teacher who ducked a child's head in a dirty toilet bowl. It includes heinous statistics like this one: In a typical year in Illinois, one of every 57 doctors loses his medical license, one in every 97 lawyers is disbarred ... and just one in 2,500 teachers loses his license.
Right-wing union-busting, yeah? Except Davis Guggenheim, who wrote and directed "Waiting for Superman," is a left-wing Democrat who won an Oscar for the global-warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." He also made the biographical video of Barack Obama screened at the 2008 Democratic convention. "That was a difficult piece," he said of the teacher issue during a recent TV interview, "because I believe in unions - I'm a member of the Director's Guild. ... That's a difficult thing to sort of dissect that issue."
Too difficult for Oscar voters.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Glenn Garvin is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.