November 6, 2010 | Commentary on Education, K-12 Federal Policy Issues

Education Reform Can't Wait

“Each morning, wanting to believe in our schools, we take a leap of faith,” filmmaker Davis Guggenheim says in “Waiting for Superman.”

His much-acclaimed documentary then gives us every reason to doubt. By framing this account of the public school system’s failure in terms of trust, “Waiting for Superman” manages to do something far more subversive than merely record union-induced systemic dysfunction. The documentary does nothing less than cast doubt on this core belief of America’s civil religion: our faith in the public school system as the mediator of our national ideals and the gateway to opportunity for all children.

From Guggenheim’s own admission that he’s “betraying the ideals” he thought he espoused (driving his children past three public schools to a private school he’s chosen) to deplorable facts (for example, six in 10 students in East Los Angeles do not graduate from high school), the film breeds skepticism about a popular national myth.

This is a myth of long standing. It was called the “myth of the common school” by Boston University professor Charles Glenn in a book by that title originally published in 1988.

As Glenn writes: “We have expected that our schools would banish crime and social divisions, that they would make our children better than we have ever been. Horace Mann and others promised us that, and we believed them. It is no wonder that suggestions . . . that our society’s secular church be disestablished arouse the deepest anxiety and confusion today.”

True to form, education unions are seething about promotion of charter schools in “Waiting for Superman,” and its proposals to end tenure and link pay to performance. “The film demonizes public education,” said National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel.

Guggenheim himself doesn’t seem to appreciate the extent of what he has wrought. His inquiry has exposed flaws deeper than the film’s modest remedies can fix. The obvious solution is to demythologize the common school, setting parents and teachers free to pursue educational arrangements that work.

We can affirm that education is a common good deserving taxpayer support. But we should question the notion of government as sole provider of schooling, a relic of the common school agenda. Public education should describe a goal (an educated citizenry), not prescribe a means (a government monopoly school system dominated by unions).

Promising alternatives have sprouted up - charter schools, private school choice through vouchers and tax credits, homeschooling, online learning and hybrid forms of these.

Given room to flourish, the possibilities are endless. Intentionally or not, Guggenheim has exposed the myth of the common school. Ultimately, the only solution that will satisfy the American spirit is to disestablish the myth and recover a vision for education worthy of a free people.

Jennifer A. Marshall is director of domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Jennifer A. Marshall Vice President for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, and the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Fellow

First appeared in The Boston Herald