Has Superman Left The Building?

The voters of Washington DC dealt a painful blow to the cause of school reform on September 14th. Adrian Fenty, the current mayor of America’s capital, was defeated in a Democratic primary election, which means he will be out of a job at the end of the year. Almost certainly, though there is some debate about this, his departure will be accompanied by that of Michelle Rhee, the city’s schools chancellor, who has been shaking up an education system awash with failing schools, not least by working with philanthrocapitalist-backed charter schools.

Fenty and Rhee are two of the stars of a new documentary movie, “Waiting For Superman“, which is due to open next week. Made by the same people who filmed “An Inconvenient Truth” (except Al Gore), under philanthrocapitalist Jeff Skoll’s Particpant Media label, the movie makes a passionate case for the sort of reforms championed by Fenty and Rhee. A huge marketing budget, plus celebrity endorsements from the likes of Bill Gates, were supposed to make it a catalyst for a much-needed nationwide debate on education reform.

On the face of it, the defeat of these two stars – Fenty and Rhee – is a blow to the movie’s strategy, though you could argue that all publicity is good publicity. Certainly, their defeat reinforces the movie’s message that education reform is hard and won’t happen unless the public get behind it. Critics of Fenty and Rhee point out that it was their confrontational style, especially in taking on the teachers unions, that was their undoing. Bill Gates has lately been making nice to the unions – but will that really deliver the sort of transformational change that is needed?

Whilst Melody Barnes, President Obama’s Domestic Policy advisor, told The Economist’s Human Potential conference on September 15th that a reversal in DC, if that is what this is (she points out that the city has just received a big Race to the Top grant to support school reform, which should encourage any successor to continue Rhee’s program), should not be seen as a reversal in the country as a whole, where the pro-charter school reform movement continues to accelerate. Maybe. But it is hard not to fear that America’s poorly served school children will now be waiting even longer for Super Man.