December 9, 2010 | Commentary on Education, K-12 Federal Policy Issues

'Superman' Exposes Myth of the Common School

'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, the film 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. The myth was spread by progressive reformers like Horace Mann in the 19th century amid anxiety over immigration and social unrest. By requiring all children to attend "common" schools, the reformers proposed to enlighten students with values that would transcend sectarian and cultural differences. The myth has dominated the American imagination for more than 150 years, even as it has failed to fulfill its founders' promises.

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. Local unions organized demonstrations outside some theaters.

Such protests reinforce what viewers witness in the theater: stories of a failed status quo, protected by powerful interests, planted in the way of children such as fifth-grader Daisy in East L.A. Daisy's parents, Jose and Judith, dropped out of high school to help their own parents keep food on the table. But they've communicated the value of education to their daughter. Daisy wants to be either a veterinarian or a surgeon - an idea she got from a library book - and she already has written to the college she wants to attend. But first she'll have to navigate an assigned high school where only three in 100 students graduate with college-prep prerequisites. With her father out of work and her mother on a hospital cleaning staff, there is no buying their way out. Daisy's parents are forced to make the ritual "leap of faith." Her mother makes the sign of the cross over her before sending her to school. But they still enter a lottery for a seat at a high-performing charter school, crossing their fingers as 135 students vie for 10 spots.

If the common school works for anyone, it should work for Daisy. It doesn't. Guggenheim himself doesn't seem to appreciate the extent of what he has wrought. With stories like these, 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).

Parents, who have the most vested in their children's success, should have real decision-making authority to manage their education. They deserve more than lip service about their significance. Rather than having to conform to the one-size-fits-all factory model of education, parents should have the freedom to direct the funding for their children's education, customizing it to student needs from a variety of options.

Promising alternatives already have sprouted up in the cracks of the current system - 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 moved on The McClatchy News Wire service