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Rotten-AppleJust recently I finished watching the documentary Waiting for “Superman” about the state of public schools in our country. One doesn’t get the sense that the film-makers are right-wing kooks out to end the Federal Department of Education. The beginning starts with the admission that the maker of the film admires public school teachers…and the admission that he drives past three public schools every day to drop his child off at a private one.

The documentary is really a must see for every citizen of this country, and I don’t say that lightly. If you have Netflix, you can stream it, so do so. But for those who won’t or can’t see it let me boil the film down. Everyone agrees that the public schools are not living up to their potential, and there are two things to blame. First is a culture that makes excuses for our children. “It’s okay. It’s just school. They’ve got street smarts.” Friends, do you think that Indian or Chinese parents are saying that? Excelling at academics is a matter of pride there. Here it’s been reduced to a bumper sticker.

As someone who once ran a school I can tell you only too well how touchy parents get when they are forced to choose between the self-esteem of a child who’s trying hard and failing and the goal of… well… education, which is to get them to know and understand material even though it is outstandingly difficult. But when I ran my school, I was blessed with outstanding teachers. Which brings us to the second reason our public schools are failing:

The teacher’s unions.

Randi Weingarten

Randi Weingarten

I wrote last week that bilking your employee of their rightfully earned salary is considered a sin tantamount to murder. It cries to heaven for justice. But I have got to think that another peculiar cry to heaven is made on behalf of the kids who suffer thanks to union leaders like Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers. You see, the unions make it impossible for bad teachers to be fired.

You can pass all the legislation you want. The School Board can insist on all sorts of standards and testing. You can dump billions of dollars into the system. But if you’ve got a bad teacher…your child won’t learn.

Even the self-motivated child with the natural aptitude and the self-discipline to study hard, can only go so far if their teacher doesn’t bother to teach them. One parent shared on film why it was she was sacrificing so much so that her daughter could go to a Catholic, private school across the street. It was because when she was a little girl and trying hard to learn so that she could make a better life for herself, a public school teacher told her, “I get paid whether you learn or not.” What do you suppose that does to the heart of a young girl, of a young woman, of a mom?

I’ve said it on this blog before and I’ll say it again, education is a social justice issue, and it is increasingly becoming one of the more important issues for us to consider. You want great health care? Let’s focus on education! Who will perform the health care needs required if we have incompetent nurses and doctors?

Our country is falling further and further behind the other industrialized nations. Bill Gates is quoted in the film saying, “We cannot sustain an economy based on innovation unless we have citizens well educated in math, science and engineering.” A sobering statistic from the movie tells us that by 2020, 123 million jobs in the U.S. will be high-skill and high-pay, but only 50 million Americans will be qualified to fill them. This is how bad our education system is failing us.

As a social justice issue, where do the candidates stand on this issue? What are the party platforms? It is painfully obvious that the Democratic Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers unions. So much so that the Party and its candidates would rather see the poor suffer than to allow the union’s grip on power waver. Republicans aren’t off the hook either. Though nationally Democratic lawmakers sing to whatever tune the union’s play, at the local level Republican candidates know on what side their bread is buttered.

If you have not seen Waiting for “Superman” find it and watch it. Then get involved. Talk to your friends and relatives about the current situation. The film makes a good point that teachers unions were at one time desperately needed. Teachers were clearly being taken advantage of. Those days are over, however. Right now our nation’s children are suffering and are being cheated out of something that is rightfully theirs, an education. Blind support for the unions has got to stop.

Waiting for Superman

Also, hold candidate’s feet to the fire. If they are a Democratic or a Republican candidate who has supported the teachers unions, ask them about reforming the tenure rules in the teachers contracts. Talk to them about merit pay, where good teachers get paid more and bad teachers get paid less or are finally fired. Mention the possibility of charter schools if there are none in your area. Contact the schools in the film about how one get’s a school started. And, yes, I’ll say it, maybe even contact your local community organizing group to see what school initiatives they’re involved with. Perhaps you could organize a community to get a charter school started.

For the Catholic, there is of course the support of your local Catholic schools system. This can be done through greater participation at the parish. This can also be done by supporting voucher programs. There are dangers with this too. Don’t get me wrong, but by having the state provide vouchers for Catholic schools they are providing an education otherwise off limits to the poor.

Lastly, challenge your neighbors and friends who presume the union candidate is automatically the social justice candidate. Educate yourself about what the Church really teaches about unions. Don’t assume that because a candidate wants to increase funding to schools that they are the social justice candidate. It’s not about money anymore. It is about culture and teachers.