Davis Guggenheim said “No.”
That was his answer when Participant Media met with the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker of “An Inconvenient Truth” and asked him to make a documentary about public education. He had already made a documentary about teachers in 1999 called “The First Year,” and he felt tackling the problems of the education system would be “a storytelling quagmire.”
And then, an ordinary day changed his mind.
“The next day, I was packing my kids’ lunches and in the minivan driving them to (private) school,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Out of the corner of my eye, I started counting the public schools that I passed. I was thinking, ‘What about the kids in my neighborhood — and I live in a pretty good neighborhood — who aren’t getting a good education?’
“It seemed to me that that was an interesting point of view, a way to tell the story from the point of view of a parent wanting everything for their kids and taking a leap of faith. If I narrated from a personal point of view, it might make for a more accessible story.”
That’s how Guggenheim approached “Waiting For ‘Superman,’” his new documentary on education that has drawn a lot of attention and acclaim — and some controversy. The movie opens in Madison on Friday at Sundance Cinemas and, in fact, opens with Guggenheim making that same drive to school, his voiceover expressing his secret guilt that he’s forgoing public education to take his kids to private school.
From there, “Waiting” presents the viewer with a whirlwind of information, from sobering statistics about the state of the public school system, a diagnosis of what’s wrong with the system and footage of reformers in both private and public schools who are trying to change things.
But the backbone of the film is a heart-tugging narrative that follows five students who have put their names into lotteries in hopes of getting into highly-acclaimed charter schools.
One of the kids comes from a pretty good public school in a nice suburban neighborhood and the other four are trying to get out of dispiriting inner-city public schools.
Guggenheim said he sees the lottery system as a symbol of an education system where how good a school you go to depends largely on what district you were born into, and how much money your parents make.
“The lottery is a metaphor for the winners and losers in the educational system,” he said. “There are lotteries for all of us. My kids won the lottery because I can afford private school.”
If the prospects for public education are dispiriting, “Waiting” offers hope in the form of reformers, from charter schools like Harlem’s Children’s Zone that are showing amazing results, to controversial public school reformers like Washington, D.C.’s Michelle Rhee, who wants to have teacher pay tied to performance to give teachers an incentive to do their best.
But some critics have said that, by showing charter schools as the answer to these students’ prayers, “Waiting For ‘Superman’” is skewed unfairly against public schools. Teachers’ unions are repeatedly pilloried in the film (Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter calls them “a menace” in the film) and most of the depictions of public schools are downbeat, such as hidden video from 1990 of a teacher reading a newspaper during class.
And, although the film mentions in passing that only 1 in 5 charter schools produce amazing results, all the charter schools shown in the film are success stories.
“Despite Guggenheim’s unquestionably good intentions, ‘Waiting for ‘Superman’ is inaccurate, inconsistent and incomplete — and misses what could have been a unique opportunity to portray the full and accurate story of our public schools,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in a statement prior to the film’s release. “Guggenheim has found ways to make facts and data interesting, even entertaining. But, when certain facts don’t advance his story line, he makes them disappear.”
Guggenheim disputes the notion that his film is pro-charter school, and said he tried to film at several high-performing magnet public schools — including the one he’s trying to get his kids enrolled in — but was turned down.
“I do not believe that charters are the silver bullet,” he said. “But the very successful ones, the ones that I show in the movie, are providing the ingredients for success that can be used at every school.
“The education world is going to say it’s ‘Pro-this’ and ‘Anti-that,’” Guggenheim added. “But I didn’t really make it for them. I made it for regular people. And I was just trying to show what the stakes are for a family looking for a great school. They don’t care whether their school is called a charter or a magnet or a private school.”
He noted that Weingarten, although she has criticized the film, has appeared in at least three panel discussions involving the film, and even wrote a chapter for the companion book to “Waiting.”
“I have a lot of respect for her,” Guggenheim said. “I think in some cases, in some districts, I think she negotiated some really advanced, reformative contracts. But I think we have to continue to push her harder.”
The film has sparked a lot of discussion in the media, with everyone from “The Today Show” to the Huffington Post devoting special segments and sections to education in the wake of the film.
Guggenheim said that it’s exciting to see so many different interests, even some who have disagreed for decades, coming together around his film and finding they share some common ground.
He thinks education policy may be at a tipping point, where people are finally so frustrated that they demand action, and that they see charter and magnet schools finding innovative ways to educate students.
“The amazing thing you realize is that everyone wants great schools,” Guggenheim said. “There’s just a certain frustration. ‘What can I do?’ This movie is a way for people to come together and talk about it.”