LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

There's a new documentary on education in theaters, now. It's called "Waiting for Superman." It's by the filmmaker who directed "An Inconvenient Truth." NPR's Claudio Sanchez takes a critical look.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Davis Guggenheim, director of "Waiting for Superman," sets out to do for the school reform debate in this country, what he did for the debate over global warming - scare us.

(Soundbite of movie, "Waiting for Superman")

Mr. DAVIS GUGGENHEIM (Director, "Waiting for Superman"): Among 30 developed countries we ranked 25th in math and 21st in science.

SANCHEZ: The threat this time is not to our planet, but to our children and our nation's future. Guggenheim conveys that threat with devastating statistics and hidden cameras snuck into what he calls dropout factories. But the film's real power resides in the voices of five children - Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, Emily - and their parents' desperate search for a good school.

(Soundbite of movie, "Waiting for Superman")

Unidentified Child #1: I don't know what college I want to go to, but I know I want to be a teacher.

Unidentified Child #2: I want to be a nurse, I want to be a doctor.

Unidentified Child #3: I want my kid to have better than what I had.

SANCHEZ: These kids are trapped in mediocre, dysfunctional public schools. So they've pinned their hopes on a lottery that could get them into privately-run, publically-funded charter schools. Schools that the movie presents, not so much as the alternative, but the antidote to what Guggenheim calls America's failed public education system.

To change that system, Guggenheim pins his hopes on a handful of hard-charging school reformers, anointed as the film's super heroes. There's Washington D.C.'s no-nonsense school Chancellor, Michelle Rhee.

(Soundbite of movie, "Waiting for Superman")

Ms. MICHELLE RHEE (Chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools): You wake up every morning and you know that kids are getting a really crappy education right now.

Mr. DAVIS GUGGENHEIM (Director, "Waiting for Superman"): So you think that mostly, kids here are getting a crappy education right now.

Ms. RHEE: Oh, I don't think they are. I know they are.

SANCHEZ: Then there's Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of Harlem Children's Zone, who, with millions of dollars in private donations, has built an extraordinary safety net for poor children who attend his charter school, and doesn't understand why regular public schools can't do the same.

(Soundbite of movie, "Waiting for Superman")

Mr. GEOFFREY CANADA (President/CEO Children's Zone): Either kids are getting stupider every year, or something is wrong in the education system...

SANCHEZ: "Waiting for Superman" gives generous screen time to reformers and their financial backers, most notably Bill Gates. The film is effective and powerful says, Dr. Timothy Knowles, head of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago.

Dr. TIMOTHY KNOWLES (Director, Urban Education Institute, University of Chicago): Its got heroes and villains, triumphs and tragedy. The promise, I think, is that a beautifully made and emotional film will help focus the country on what it will take to create reliably excellent schools.

SANCHEZ: But there are two big problems with the film, says Knowles. Guggenheim exalts charter schools as a singular strategy for improving education, despite their mixed record. Second, he says, Guggenheim's blistering attack on teachers' unions is unfair and counterproductive. The film accuses unions of protecting incompetent teachers.

The President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, gets just enough screen time to explain and defend teachers' rights to due process. But in the end she's the perfect foil - Guggenheim's Lex Luthor. Public school teachers care about kids too, says Weingarten, but you wouldn't know it by watching this film.

Ms. RANDI WEINGARTEN (President, American Federation of Teachers): The movie does not portray one great public school, does not portray one great public school teacher. It gives no credit to any of that and no balance to any of that.

SANCHEZ: Weingarten says Guggenheim's analysis of what ails public education is simplistic, misleading and divisive.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Los Angeles, California): I didn't see the movie as polarizing in any way.

SANCHEZ: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has seen the film twice.

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: I think its pro-kids. It puts a face on the personal trials and tribulation of families who confronting the crisis in public education.

(Soundbite of movie, "Waiting for Superman")

Unidentified Man: And the first student selected: 20.

(Soundbite of cheering)

SANCHEZ: As the one hour 42 minute film winds down, Guggenheim brings us back to the drama that's been building: The fate of its five young protagonists. Will their lottery number come up? Will they get into a better school? We all hold our breath.

(Soundbite of movie, "Waiting for Superman")

Unidentified Man: And the last number...

SANCHEZ: "Waiting for Superman's" thesis is clear: America has left too many kids' education up to chance, and Guggenheim wants to enlist every American to help change that. The movie's Web site even has a sign-up sheet and donation box.

You have to wonder, though, if Guggenheim has thought about what's easier, stopping global warming or making sure every child in America attends a good school.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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