Rhee gets star turn in education film 'Waiting for Superman' at Silverdocs

The Silverdocs Documentary Festival, co-sponsored by the American Film Institute and the Discovery Channel, brings a week's worth of films from around the world to the Washington area.
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2010

Photographers and reporters took their assigned spots at the rope line along the red carpet in front of the AFI Silver Theatre on Wednesday evening. Frazzled PR people darted around, fiddling with their BlackBerrys and murmuring to each other.

"The talent is arriving!" one of them breathlessly announces.

A black Suburban pulls up to the curb. And out steps . . . D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, ready for her close-up.

After countless newspaper and magazine profiles, television time with everyone from Tom Sherwood to Tom Brokaw, and a presidential debate shout-out from Barack Obama, Rhee is having her Hollywood moment. It comes in the form of "Waiting for Superman," a new documentary about the troubled state of public education from the makers of "An Inconvenient Truth," the Academy Award-winning examination of the consequences of climate change.

"Superman" was screened as part of the annual AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival. The film, which will get its national release in September, is built around the stories of five children -- including one from the District -- stuck in failing public schools.

While chronicling their parents' struggles to place them in coveted public charter schools, where admission is determined by lottery, director Davis Guggenheim recounts the history of failed attempts to improve the nation's education system. He uses Rhee's turbulent tenure in the District as a case study in the obstacles reformers face.

But Guggenheim's version of recent D.C. history is unlikely to sit well with teachers. He depicts Rhee as the super-hero of "Superman," a combination of Wonder Woman and Xena fighting to bring the D.C. bureaucracy and Washington Teachers' Union to heel.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is cast as the antagonist, appearing vaguely sinister in that grainy political-attack-ad style while rallying rank-and-file audiences against the forces of reform. The film includes scenes of a teacher reading a newspaper as his class languishes in front of him and of educators asleep in New York's infamous "rubber room," since shut down, where they would wait, sometimes for years, at full salary for disciplinary proceedings to play out. Tenure is portrayed as a guarantee of lifetime employment rather than a due-process mechanism.

"I did feel it was biased. I know it's an inaccurate picture, at least from my perspective," said Melanie Goldstein, a veteran Montgomery County teacher.

Weingarten, who joined Rhee and Guggenheim on the red carpet, had already seen the film and knew what was coming.

"You want us to smile?" she asked gamely as the shutters went off.

Rhee seemed slightly sheepish about the showbiz trappings but at a panel discussion later was clearly pleased with the film. Like Guggenheim, she would like to see "Superman" become the "Inconvenient Truth" of school reform, galvanizing and mobilizing public opinion. She also said the film, which ends with the children and parents learning their fates in the long-odds lotteries, moved her.

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