Caped crusaders take on school "reform"

NEW YORK--It's a bird! It's a plane! It's...Superman? No! The caped superheroes who turned out to movie theaters on September 24 to protest at the opening of David Guggenheim's movie Waiting for "Superman" were public school teachers, parents and activists.

The movie argues that education would be better if teachers were more accountable and non-union, and schools were run like businesses with incentives like merit pay and test scores used as the bottom line. But public education activists protesting the movie, who call themselves "The Real Reformers," are demanding a completely different conversation about education reform.

Activists chanted, to the tune of Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady," "Cause we're the real reformers, yes the reformers, / All the other deformers are just speculating! / Won't the Real Reformers please stand up! / Please stand up, please stand up!"

Waiting for "Superman" presents charter schools as the long-awaited savior of public school children, taking a page from the education reform proposed by Barack Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The Real Reformers protesting at the theater made it clear that they aren't against charter school students, parents or teachers, but want the best for all students.

"Look, I'm an educator, I don't want to take anything away, if a child is having a positive experience," said one activist. "I don't want to take that away from them, [but] then I think we need to catch the charters in a Catch-22. If something is going on that's good in that charter, why aren't they doing it all across the city?"

Many in the media argue that Guggenheim's film is opening up an important conversation in education, but activists reject the framework of that conversation--that education reform can only be achieved by privatization, scapegoating teachers and union-busting. In their words, to quote protesters, "They put teachers on blast in the newspaper? / "All you need is quality teachers...deerrrr! / We will expose their agenda and open your eyes / And show the world their drive to privatize."

Protesters held up giant signs emblazoned with their demands for real reform: Smaller Class Sizes, Excellent Community Schools for All, More teaching – Less testing, Parent Empowerment and Leadership, Equitable Funding for All Schools, Anti-Racist Education Policies, Culturally Relevant Curriculum and Expanded Pre-Kindergarten and Early Intervention Programs.

Their message resonated with many passersby who were leaving the theater and stopped to take literature. The action, organized by New York City's Grassroots Education Movement (GEM), appeared on Fox News and the New York Post.

The next weekend, two parent activists--one of them a central organizer of the Real Reformers--were interviewed on Fox's "Fox and Friends" morning show. GEM plans to release its own documentary on education reform, The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, which will highlight teacher, parent and community voices calling for a completely different set of reforms.

GEM organized the September 24 action in the hopes of inspiring more actions around education. To learn more about GEM and get involved in their work, visit the GEM Web site.

The Real Reformers used their street theater performance to put out a call for action: "And there's a million reformers just like us, Who teach like us, who have kids like us, who care like us, real reformers for 'just us,' just trust us, parents and teachers unite like us..."

Activists have work ahead of them, as they organize to open up a new kind of conversation about education reform--demanding equitable funding and not a race for inadequate funding, smaller class sizes and not merit pay, rich relevant curriculum and not test scores, community involvement and not mayoral control.

It's time to join in the fight for public education and demand the type of reform that will truly make a difference in the education of our youth.