Last year, education reformers had high hopes for a documentary film called Waiting for "Superman." With impeccable liberal credentials -- it was made by the same people behind Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth -- the film mercilessly highlighted failures of the American public school system.
It also systematically demolished the argument that the problem was underfunding and instead pointed the finger at government bureaucracy and the control teachers' unions have over the system.
Hopes that the film would do Fahrenheit 9/11 numbers, though, were in vain. It pulled in about $6 million at the box office. That's good for a documentary, but far less than the average horror flick or rom-com.
Then, shortly after the film's release, the filmmakers got a lesson in how little impact their documentary had. Its nominal star, D.C.'s public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, was obliged to step down. Her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost his bid for re-election mainly because teachers unions spent massively to elect his Democratic primary opponent, Vincent Gray.
The teachers unions did it solely to get the crusading reformer Rhee fired and make an example of her to anyone else who dared cross them. (Meanwhile, it took only two months for Gray's administration to become embroiled in a variety of corruption scandals.)
But where thoughtful, sober-minded commentary failed, savage mockery might succeed. Another film has hit the theaters and this one may have a far more potent effect on the education debate.
Bad Teacher took in $32 million last weekend and is certain to become a one of the summer's biggest hits. That's very bad news for defenders of the educational status quo like American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. This black comedy is the most scabrous portrayal of public education ever put to celluloid.
Cameron Diaz stars as Elisabeth Halsey, a public middle school teacher who literally does not care for students at all. When we first see her, she's just marking time until she can land a rich husband and not have to work at all. When her fiancé calls off their engagement she's forced back into teaching and her dislike of molding young minds curdles into outright loathing.
She doesn't bother to teach the kids at all, regularly shows up to class hungover, solicits bribes from parents in exchange for good grades, embezzles money from school fundraisers and tells the one go-getter in her class to give up her dreams of becoming president in exchange for something more realistic, "like a masseuse."
"When I first started teaching, I thought that I was doing it for all the right reasons: Shorter hours, summers off, no accountability ..." she explains.
The last part is key: No matter how big a train wreck Halsey is, she is never in any danger of losing her job or even being disciplined. When a rival teacher confronts the principal with the (accurate) charge that Halsey is using drugs on school property, he balks at probing the matter, fearful of what the unions will do to him.
There is nothing that can be done about her, so the authorities pretend not to notice. This, the film suggests, is routine.
Later in the film (Spoiler alert!), Halsey does buckle down and start teaching her students -- but only because she discovers that a big financial reward goes to the teacher whose students do best on a statewide test and she wants the money to get a boob job. (Merit pay, anyone?) Her methods include pelting her students with basketballs until they give the correct answers.
Even this turns out to be short-lived when she realizes the students aren't doing well enough, so she instead engages in an elaborate scam to cheat the test. When her rival tries to expose her fraud, Halsey has her -- a teacher who actually does inspire students -- framed for drug possession and bounced out of the school. And that's the happy ending.
It is a tribute to the talents of the Diaz and the filmmakers that they actually manage to get you rooting for this horrible person. But the fact that the public is ready to accept such a portrayal no doubt played a part as well.
Just a few years ago portraying a teacher in a major studio film as anything other than an uplifting hero would have been unthinkable. (One of Bad Teacher's running gags is that Halsey's classes consist mainly of her showing such films like Lean On Me or Dangerous Minds.) But the stench of failure emanating from the nation's public school system has become impossible for even Hollywood liberals to ignore. Something has to explain why the schools are so rotten.
Bad Teacher suggests the problem may be the teachers themselves and the union-controlled system that protects them at the expense of the students. Tens of millions of people are likely to get that message this summer.
If I were American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, I'd stay out of the multiplex for the next few months.
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