In a preview of the education agenda for the upcoming session, members of the Florida legislature gathered at Tallahassee’s Miracle 5 movie theater on Tuesday for a screening of Waiting for Superman, a documentary that explores the shortcomings of America’s education system.
The film places blame for those shortcomings on a lack of choices for students and parents bound by geography to schools that aren’t meeting their needs, as well as a lack of accountability for underperforming teachers. Much of the blame, the film suggests, lies with complacent administrators and politically powerful teachers unions intent on defending the status quo.
After the film, state Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, said he agreed with a lot of what the film had to say about the problems with the country’s schools, but took issue with the film’s portrayal of the unions as protectors of bad teachers and obstacles to needed reforms.
“What it didn’t mention is that the unions also protect good teachers,” he said, adding that school reform efforts should focus on giving schools the resources they need, and on ensuring students access to things like broadband technology.
The film ends with suspense, as five children await the outcomes of charter school lotteries. Charter schools offer them hope to leave the schools that are failing them, but space is limited and demand is high. Students are eager to learn, the film suggests, but today’s education system forces them to rely on the luck of the draw, leaving them waiting on “superheroes” who may never arrive.
One of the heroes of the film is Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C. school chancellor who is now a part of Gov.-elect Rick Scott’s transition team. She is portrayed as a hard-charging outsider, and emphasizes in the film that she did not see herself as a career school administrator, which freed her to shake things up. During her short tenure, the district saw improved test scores and increased support for art and music programs, but Rhee drew fire for attempting to institute merit pay for teachers.
The school system was failing kids, she says in the film, in the name of maintaining ”harmony among adults.”
After the film, Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, echoed a similar theme in front of the camera of a local Fox affiliate. The state needs to do what’s best for kids, he said, and not let politics get in the way.
During the last legislative session, he supported a bill that would have pegged a portion of teachers’ pay to “student performance” (without defining how that would be measured) and made it easier to fire teachers whose students performed poorly. The measure was vehemently opposed by teachers, and ultimately vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist, who won their support for his failed Senate bid.
Also Tuesday, the state unveiled the results of a new grading system, which broadened measurement beyond the FCAT and saw vast improvement in many school’s scores. The new standards, proposed by state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, drew praise from several lawmakers as well as Jackie Pons, superintendent of Leon County Public Schools.