On October 8, 2008, Citizens for Better Education, the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy, and Americans For Prosperity — Kansas sponsored a screening of Flunked the Movie. I had an opportunity to sit down and talk with Steven Maggi, the film’s executive producer. Following are some excerpts from our conversation.
Q. The reform measures in the movie Flunked: Did they end up costing more money?
A. They actually saved money. Certainly the charter schools did. In every case they paid their teachers more than teachers in the traditional school, and still did it with less money. Teacher pay is an important thing, but people have to think beyond just paying teachers under the same system. It’s still rewarded off seniority. We have to find ways to attract the best teachers. … How do we keep the best teachers?
Q. Some of the schools successfully serve student populations that are poor and disadvantaged in many ways. Often public schools use poverty as an excuse for their failures. Does poverty doom children to failure?
A. Absolutely not. What dooms failure is not challenging them. In each of these cases, we saw that when someone came into a failing school, when kids are challenged, they respond. In Watts, when Howard Lappin, one of our All-Stars came into the school it, was 95% minority students. He saw that most people were taking remedial math. He said “This is ridiculous. We’re going to start taking algebra.” And of course there was an upheaval in the community. By God, these kids can’t get through fourth grade math! How are they going to get through algebra? Well now, not only do they all pass the algebra, they take honors courses. You just have to believe in the kids.
It makes sense if you think about it. Did kids all of the sudden get stupid in the country? No! In each of these cases — they’re not cherry-picking the best kids. They’re coming from the same areas as before, and they’ve managed to turn decades of failure around.
Q. Opponents of special schools such as charter and private schools claim that because these schools are able to select their students, they “cherry-pick” the best and leave the most problematic children for the public schools. Did you find evidence of this?
A. In terms of the charter schools, everyone that we looked at, you applied and there was no entrance exam. It was luck of the draw. The only thing is you had to want to go there.
Q. Often we hear that poor parents can’t be trusted to select a good school for their children, or that they won’t take extraordinary steps to make sure their children get a good education. What does your film say to this?
A. First of all, what an insulting statement that is. I do believe this is one of the last bastions of the civil rights fight that needs to be fought. Just because on the basis of income, people are stuck with traditions, generations of kids going to bad schools.
We went into some of the communities [in southern California] and it was heart-breaking. You would talk to people and they’d say “You know, I’ve got to do whatever I can to get him into the charter school.” Because if they go to the school they’re supposed to go to, their life is over. They’ll become a criminal. It’s a horrible environment, and they’re doomed to failure. Imagine how that would make one feel. So when these charter schools and other areas where options are open, what a great thing. There’s hope all of the sudden.
Q. We’ve invited school board members, school administrators, and newspaper columnists to this screening. Do people like this attend screenings in other cities? What is their reaction to the movie?
A. It’s very encouraging. Reaction has been very good. Even union members that have said they can’t find much to argue with. School board members are encouraged.
Q. In one of the schools, the teachers union agreed that teachers could be fired for cause. Was that a big factor in the school’s success? What does this say about the role of the teachers unions in blocking reforms?
A. Those are the Green Dot schools in Los Angeles. Steve Barr worked really well with the unions to try to come up with a different approach. So what he did was he said okay, we’ll give you more money right up front, you’re going to work in smaller schools, you’re going to have a lot more input into what’s taught. But in exchange for that, we’re going to go from, literally, no way to be dismissed to to a for-just-cause system. And he has one hundred people for every one position that comes open from the traditional Los Angeles school union.
Q. In Kansas our charter school law is so weak that rarely does someone try to start one. What are we missing out on by having such a law?
A. We need to empower parents. And the one way you can really empower parents is to give them some choices. Charter schools do that. Charter schools are not the silver bullet. Let me say that right up front. There are some charter schools that don’t work. But here’s the important thing and the really good news: When charter schools fail, they go away! It’s great! When the regular traditional school fails, it just stays there.
When we researched the film, in Dade County Florida, they failed, and as part of the no Child Left Behind Act, they all of the sudden had to have school choice. Well, what happened there is that the public schools got together and said “you know what, we’re losing students and this isn’t good. What can we do?” So they looked at what are the things they do best. They found that in some cases they could offer things like Cantonese and more technology classes. So they did that. They’ve gotten a lot better. All of the sudden those schools are way better than they were before because they were pushed into it. They had to compete.
Q. So the public schools respond. They don’t like to lose students, do they?
A. No, absolutely not.
Q. So they’ll undergo meaningful reforms, if they find they need to in order to retain students?