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Waiting for the Truth

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The provocative new documentary film "Waiting for Superman," by Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim and Lesley Chilcott, takes a brave crack at explaining what I, a journalism school student, had been trying to grasp all semester -- a rudimentary understanding of the history of education reforms, the current state of our nation's public schools, and all the complex and nuanced issues confronting our nation's classrooms. I figured it would be a tough tale to tell. Guggenheim talks about what he hoped to accomplish in a Q&A with San Francisco Chronicle's Jill Tucker.

The filmmakers ask us to accept their premise that American public schools, once the best in the world, are not so great after all. Despite increased spending and high-level attention from politicians in Washington and corporate philanthropists like Bill Gates, schools are still failing our kids. The law may say that no child will be left behind, but Guggenheim and Chilcott find plenty of kids lost in the shuffle.

The Sundance-winning film follows the lives of five students -- Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily and Francisco -- who are caught in a public (but provincial) education system based on luck, or the lack thereof. If a family is well-enough-off, like Guggenheim's and my own, kids can attend private school. If you aren't, then, the film suggests there's only one way out for parents in the know: play the charter-school game. Parents can place their child's name in a lottery in hopes of winning one of the very few coveted seats in charter schools, which serve only three percent of the nation's children.

But here's the thing: "The solutions we embrace," wrote Luis Ubiñas, President of the Ford Foundation, in a November 17, 2009, letter to The Wall Street Journal, "must work for the majority of students across the country, however, not only a lucky minority."

The film, which will open in the fall, follows the core group of students as they explore their options, and culminates in the heartbreaking lottery process. The children's stories are set against a backdrop of interviews with education experts like Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, and economist Eric Hanushek, from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

The idea is that while kids like Anthony, Daisy and Francisco have promise, as all children do, the current public school system -- especially in urban areas -- is failing them and needs reform. Attention-grabbing ink drawings set to 3D animation by a company called Awesome and Modest show "drop-out factories," "academic sinkholes," and the lemon-dance to illustrate "fun" facts like deplorable high-school graduation rates and the difficulty in ridding schools of incompetent teachers. (Click here to read a New York Times post by Catherine Rampell about graduation rates, state by state.)

These are not points to be taken lightly. However, the film's conclusion is as simplistic as it is misleading: charter schools are good, and public schools, as they stand currently, are bankrupt. We knew from some of our own reporting that New York City was home to a collection of successful and innovative public schools that could challenge this assumption. But even more curious, the film undercuts its own message midstream by reporting that "only one in five charters is producing good results."

A Stanford University study last year found that only 17 percent of the nation's charter schools were significantly better than neighboring public schools; about 37 percent were significantly worse, and 46 percent were roughly the same.

So is it reasonable to accept that charters are the answer to the nation's failing schools?

"We've learned that all our schools -- public, charter, and private -- need four basics in order to succeed: outstanding teaching, sufficient and well-designed learning time, money to pay for it, and strong accountability to make sure both money and time are used well and that our children are getting ahead," wrote Ford Foundation President Ubiñas. "The challenge now is how to bring this generation of innovation to scale for all our young people, especially in our poorest neighborhoods where the challenges are toughest and where few funders have focused resources."

These not-so-subtle details remain unaddressed in the film. The fact is that charter schools are funded through a combination of public and private funds, but they are independently run. They are not subject to the same level of scrutiny or accountability as traditional public schools.

Furthermore, many charters have been criticized over the years for making little to no room for students with special needs or English language learners. These students tend to be sent instead to low-performing public schools, further eroding their chances for success and the school's ability to improve.

Other school success factors go unmentioned, such as access to healthy food, exposure to rich language, a safe neighborhood, a stable home life and a supportive community. As in any story, there's only so much space or time to make a point, but still.

After the success of "An Inconvenient Truth," in which Guggenheim rallied viewers to heed the effects of climate change, the filmmaker has a respected voice and following. This film promises to enlighten audiences about the educational injustices school kids face. It will inevitably leave viewers moved by the plight of the children, yet also unable to see any workable solutions beyond creating more charter schools.

That's more than inconvenient. It's tragic.

A version of this post appeared in June on School Stories , a website produced in conjunction with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Covering Education seminar taught by Prof. LynNell Hancock.