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Originally published Thursday, September 23, 2010 at 3:55 PM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Public schools: waiting for us to 'get it'

The education documentary "Waiting for Superman" should not only rattle our smug complacency about public schools, but also fuel the reform movement.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Every so often our protective armor of smug complacency about public schools gets rattled. A disturbing insight interrupts the narrative we play in our heads, the one that goes, "my school and teachers are great, ergo, the status quo works."

Try and retain that illusion after seeing "Waiting for Superman," the alarming documentary in theaters Friday.

Through the heartbreaking struggles of five families fighting for what we all want — good schools and caring teachers — the movie catalogs the ills of public education's bloated bureaucracy: the high dropout rates, the widening achievement gap and powerful teachers unions that keep the conversation about adults rather than children.

The movie, championed by Bill Gates, Oprah and featured on the cover of Time magazine, ought to fuel the education-reform movement. From urban schools to suburbia, all are asking how they can do better by all students.

We might all be mini-versions of Davis Guggenheim, the Academy Award winner for the Al Gore global-warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." He came to the topic after questioning why he drove past three public schools each weekday to drop his children off at a private school. The answer was that those schools, despite his support for public schools in general, weren't good enough for his children.

We might all examine our blithe tolerance of schools we wouldn't send our children to.

The task becomes more meaningful in Seattle Public Schools, where a return to neighborhood boundaries diminishes an option many parents had to escape the worst schools: leave them for someone else's kids.

We're all in this boat now.

It is tempting to dismiss the film and its students living in New York City's bleakest neighborhoods as sad but distant problems.

But that would entail turning a blind eye to our own backyard, where state students' above-the-national-average test scores hide less-impressive realities.

Our dropout rate is appalling. Just 68 percent of students earn a high-school diploma here. In 32 schools around the state, 40 percent of the students drop out, according to a University of Washington policy report. Mostly African-American and Hispanic students attend those dropout factories, widening the racial gap in achievement.

Charter schools would not be a magic bullet but they have tackled these problems with some success. But Washington is one of the few states without a charter-school law, an absence that is less about the efficacy of charter schools and more about staying on the right side of education unions, which may have softened on accountability but remain stridently opposed to charters.

The excuse one hears in the effort to block charter schools here is that they show mixed academic results. So do public schools. Imagine what we could accomplish if we stopped thinking about adults and thought about what children needed: chiefly more, not fewer, learning options.

The battle for more choice is getting help from Gates and Oprah, who predicts in Oprah-fashion that "Superman" should revolutionize American schools. For once, I hope she's not overstating things.

But I think too many will continue to block reforms. Look at Washington, D.C., where teachers unions dug into their political war chests to get the mayor unelected because of his appointment of a staunch education reformer to run the city schools. Political payback that will not help a single kid read or count.

But don't think lawmakers everywhere didn't notice and blanch.

Critics say "Superman" is derelict for not including fantastic schools and teachers who would walk through fire for their students.

The film didn't need to. Our smug complacency comes from that fact that many of us — I raise my hand here — know those excellent schools and teachers well. They educate our kids. The problem concerns the many children who don't know there are vibrant places of learning. Those kids wait for a superhero to save them when all they really need is us.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

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