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What does the provocative new documentary, Waiting for Superman, mean for Catholic schools in America?  I hope quite a lot.

It appears from experts and popular attention that “Waiting for Superman” is going to make waves.  Even Oprah did a show on the film (see video link above) and expressed outrage over what she saw in the film.  Reading the signs of the times, I think its fair to predict that Davis Guggenheim’s newest “shockumentary” is going to be as big as his last, An Inconvenient Truth.  This has massive implications for ed-reform and also, I believe, for Catholic schools.

In his blog post yesterday, John Schoenig quoted Whitney Tilson’s critique of the NY Times article about Archbishop Dolan’s plan to revitalize Catholic education in New York.  Tilson said:

Too bad the article doesn’t deal with the much bigger issue: the utter INSANITY, from a societal perspective, of allowing inner-city Catholic schools – which are often oases of safety, discipline and rigor – to close, while throwing massively more money at catastrophically failing public schools nearby.  Why not give parents a choice…

Waiting for Superman appears to focus on parents trying to get their kids into Charter schools.  But the theme is the same.  The issue is the same. Parents deserve choices, and as Tilson suggests, Catholic schools that are “oases of safety, discipline and rigor” represent one of the most important choices available in America’s urban neighborhoods.  But as waves of Catholic schools close nationally, year after year, this choice is quickly disappearing.  It is hard to over-estimate how dire this situation has become.  1,500 Catholic schools have closed nationally since 2000.  That’s a loss of roughly 20% in one decade!

So, God willing, Waiting for Superman will send shock waves into the system.  It seems likely that it will further break the hegemony of teachers unions.  This will present a critically important opportunity and momentum for change.

Needless to say, this film is a must see.  The big question will be: how best can we act upon the righteous outrage that will surely follow?  Time to get ready, get involved, and get organized.

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This government continues  policies of feeding the blob and starving lean and effective faith-based schools.

Yesterday’s NY Times reported that the Senate approved a $26 billion dollar bill to close the gap for state budgets and prevent teacher layoffs.  $10 billion of federal tax dollars will be used to prevent teacher lay-offs for public school districts.  This is on top of the $100 billion bailout for the nation’s public schools in last year’s stimulus bill, the $4 billion dollar Race to the Top program, $650 Million in i3 grants (Investing in Innovation).  With the exception of a minuscule portion of the first bail-out, none of this money was made available to Catholic and faith-based schools.

174 Catholic schools closed during the 2009-2010 school year, causing thousands of teachers and staff to lose jobs and tens of thousands of students to be displaced and lose access to quality Catholic schools.

Despite an initial half-hearted attempt by the Obama Administration to continue the focus that the Bush Administration placed on preserving urban faith-based schools (the DOE convened faith-based school leaders a few times and basically said, “why don’t you guys get your stuff together and save your schools?”) it is fair to say that the Obama Administration and the Democratic leadership have completely neglected to offer any meaningful support to faith-based schools.

Though some of these programs, especially Race to the Top and i3 grants, have supported interesting public school reforms and challenged teachers union’s stranglehold on public education, this administration’s education policy is ultimately dramatically expanding charters and other public school options while quickening the extinction of faith-based schools in America.

I highly recommend taking a look at this NPR Intelligence Squared debate contesting the proposal “Don’t blame teachers unions for our failing schools.” (Click on the Audio/Video tab at the top of the screen to watch the lively bout). As you will see from the audience response to the heated discussion, most people think exactly the opposite, teachers unions are the culprit!  For those interested in education reform, the politics of education, and parental choice, this is one of the more honest and open discussions with leaders from both sides and is very revealing of the stakes, the interests, and the facts.

Terry Moe, the William Bennett Munro Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, Rod Paige, former U.S. Secretary of Education (2001-2005), and Larry Sand, public school teacher turned union critic, represent the reformers.

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4-million-member American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, Gary Smuts, superintendent of the ABC Unified School District in California, and Kate McGlaughlin, elementary teacher in the Lowell, Massachusetts public schools and executive vice president of the local Lowell teachers union, represent the pro-union side.

These issues are deeply connected to policies and politics that could provide greater access to Catholic schools for low-income families and improve the viability of urban private and faith-based education.  Unions are by far the most powerful actors and this debate reveals their role in a fair and open forum.

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