Tag: documentary

Warner Brothers Distributes “The Cartel”

Early this year, when I heard that Paramount had picked up the education documentary “Waiting for Superman” after its award winning appearance at the Sundance Film Festival, I was honestly surprised. The film is not kind to the status quo education monopoly in this country, and Hollywood does not have a history of indicting that system as a whole. But its director was an Obama-supporting, “Inconvenient Truth” shooting Democrat who perhaps, I thought, had made the message palatable to the Left Coast establishment. It didn’t necessarily portend a fundamental change in Hollywood’s tastes.

But that was months ago. Times change. Yesterday I learned from Bob Bowdon, director of the brutally candid education expose “The Cartel” that his film has been picked up for distribution by Warner Brothers Studios. It’s now available not just for sale but instant viewing on Amazon.com.

Remember 2010. It’s the year Americans finally started to tear down education’s Berlin Wall.

Waiting for Realityman

The edu-documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ continues to generate lots of noise about fixing American education. Unfortunately, like the film itself, most of the noisemakers ultimately ignore reality: The only way to make educators truly put children first is to require that they satisfy parents – the customers – to get their money. And that can mean only one thing:  transforming our education system into one in which parents control education funding and educators have to earn their business.

You would think that would be clear to members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Think again: In a new report, the Chamber demonstrates that what’s really needed is not a visit from Superman, but for Realityman to give it a superpowered kick to the rear so that it will demand universal school choice, not the milquetoast tweaks of the government monopoly it meekly champions.

What follows are just a few examples of where the Realityman Signal shines brightly in the report – where the Chamber clearly sees the diabolical work of government monopoly, but ultimately fails to identify the culprit – calling out for our hero to save the Chamber.

First, the paper notes that “successful businesses use well-documented management and leadership practices that result in lean, accountable, flexible, high-achieving organizations.” Meanwhile, “these practices are often absent in school management. State [sic] and districts are not held accountable for their academic outcomes relative to their expenditures….”

No kidding: Businesses have to become ever-more efficient and effective or they’ll lose customers to better, cheaper competitors.  Public schools, in contrast, have no real competition and get paid no matter what.

Next, if you aren’t happy with the state of your schools, the Chamber advises getting “tough with candidates and elected officials…. Call candidates, conduct town hall forums and invite the press, write op-eds, and call your local newspaper reporters who work on education issues.”

Now, is this how most businesses work? If a firm isn’t happy with a supplier, does it call its congressman, hold fora, pen op-eds, badger reporters, all in the hope of eventually persuading the supplier to change? Of course not: If the supplier doesn’t improve, the firm just finds a new one and moves on!

Finally, the Chamber laments that “other industries are changing, adapting, and harnessing the power of new technologies, but our education system resists change.”

There’s a simple explanation for this: Public schooling isn’t an “industry.” WordNet defines “industry” as “the organized action of making of goods and services for sale [italics added].” But public schools don’t sell anything. They simply take, and because they don’t have to earn any business they have little incentive to adapt new technologies.

Surely most businessmen recognize the forces that push them to do their best. Why can’t they see the desperate need for the same forces in education?

Save us, Realityman!

Why is Waiting for “Superman” Pushing Kryptonite?

You’ve probably heard it already, but if not, you should know that on Friday the documentary Waiting for “Superman” – from An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim – will be opening in select theaters around the country. The film, about how hard it is to access good education in America thanks to adults putting their interests first, follows several children as they hope beyond hope to get into oversubscribed charter schools. It is said by those who’ve seen it to be a tear-jerker and call to arms to substantially reform American education.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t promote real, essential reform: Taking money away from special-interest dominated government schools and letting parents control it.

The movie does flirt – from what I know, that is, without having yet seen it – with school choice, lionizing charter schools. But let’s not forget that while many charter schools and their founders have tremendous vision and drive, charters are still public schools, and as such are easily smothered by politically potent special interests like teacher unions. Moreover, while charter schools are chosen, charter schooling still keeps money – and therefore power – out of the hands of parents. Together, these things  explain why there are so many heartbreaking charter lotteries to film: there is almost no ability or incentive to scale up good schooling models to meet all the desperate demand.  

But isn’t the goal for no child to have to wait for Superman? If so, then why not give parents the power to choose good schools (and leave bad ones) right now by instituting widespread school choice? Indeed, we’re quickly losing room in good institutions because parochial schools – which have to charge tuition to stay in business – simply can’t compete with “free” alternatives. If we were to let parents control education funds immediately, however, they could get their kids into those disappearing seats while the seats are  still around, and we would finally have the freedom and consumer-driven demand necessary to see good schools widely replicated.

Unfortunately, Waiting for “Superman” doesn’t just seem to want to make people wait for good schools by promoting charter schools and not full choice. On its “take action” website, it prominently promotes the very opposite of parent empowerment: Uniform, government-imposed, national standards for every public school in America.

Rather than let parents access the best curriculum for their unique children, the Waiting for “Superman” folks want to give the federal government power. Of course, the website doesn’t say that Washington will control “common” standards, but make no mistake: Federal money has been driving the national standards train, and what Washington funds, it ultimately controls. And there is no better way to complete the public schooling monopoly – to let the teacher unions, administrator associations, and other adult interests do one-stop shopping for domination – than to centralize power in one place.

The people behind Waiting for “Superman” are no doubt well intentioned, and their film worth seeing. But pushing kryptonite is pushing kryptonite, and it has to be stopped.

The Great Writ

The BBC has put together an interesting documentary on the writ of habeas corpus, a legal concept most people have heard of, but too few understand and appreciate. You can stream it here.

We should not forget that President Bush and the coterie of lawyers around him tried to advance a theory of executive power that would have made the writ of habeas corpus worthless.  I hasten to add that President Obama has not really disavowed Bush’s claims and so the danger to the great writ has not passed just because Bush has left office.

Related video clip of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez here.  Related Cato work here, here,  and here.

Big Teacher Is Watching

Researching government invasions of privacy all day, I come across my fair share of incredibly creepy stories, but this one may just take the cake.  A lawsuit alleges that the Lower Merion School District in suburban Pennsylvania used laptops issued to each student to spy on the kids at home by remotely and surreptitiously activating the webcam built into the bezel of each one. The horrified parents of one student apparently learned about this capability when their son was called in to the assistant principal’s office and accused of “inappropriate behavior while at home.” The evidence? A still photograph taken by the laptop camera in the student’s home.

I’ll admit, at first I was somewhat skeptical—if only because this kind of spying is in such flagrant violation of so many statutes that I thought surely one of the dozens of people involved in setting it up would have piped up and said: “You know, we could all go to jail for this.” But then one of the commenters over at Boing Boing reminded me that I’d seen something like this before, in a clip from Frontline documentary about the use of technology in one Bronx school.  Scroll ahead to 4:37 and you’ll see a school administrator explain how he can monitor what the kids are up to on their laptops in class. When he sees students using the built-in Photo Booth software to check their hair instead of paying attention, he remotely triggers it to snap a picture, then laughs as the kids realize they’re under observation and scurry back to approved activities.

I’ll admit, when I first saw that documentary—it aired this past summer—that scene didn’t especially jump out at me. The kids were, after all, in class, where we expect them to be under the teacher’s watchful eye most of the time anyway. The now obvious question, of course, is: What prevents someone from activating precisely the same monitoring software when the kids take the laptops home, provided they’re still connected to the Internet?  Still more chilling: What use is being made of these capabilities by administrators who know better than to disclose their extracurricular surveillance to the students?  Are we confident that none of these schools employ anyone who might succumb to the temptation to check in on teenagers getting out of the shower in the morning? How would we ever know?

I dwell on this because it’s a powerful illustration of a more general point that can’t be made often enough about surveillance: Architecture is everything. The monitoring software on these laptops was installed with an arguably legitimate educational purpose, but once the architecture of surveillance is in place, abuse becomes practically inevitable.  Imagine that, instead of being allowed to install a bug in someone’s home after obtaining a warrant, the government placed bugs in all homes—promising to activate them only pursuant to a judicial order.  Even if we assume the promise were always kept and the system were unhackable—both wildly implausible suppositions—the amount of surveillance would surely spike, because the ease of resorting to it would be much greater even if the formal legal prerequisites remained the same. And, of course, the existence of the mics would have a psychological effect of making surveillance seem like a default.

You can see this effect in law enforcement demands for data retention laws, which would require Internet Service Providers to keep at least customer transactional logs for a period of years. In face-to-face interactions, of course, our default assumption is that no record at all exists of the great majority of our conversations. Law enforcement accepts this as a fact of nature. But with digital communication, the default is that just about every activity creates a record of some sort, and so police come to see it as outrageous that a potentially useful piece of evidence might be deleted.

Unfortunately, we tend to discuss surveillance in myopically narrow terms.  Should the government be able to listen in on the phone conversations of known terrorists? To pose the question is to answer it. What kind of technological architecture is required to reliably sweep up all the communications an intelligence agency might want—for perfectly legitimate reasons—and what kind of institutional incentives and inertia does that architecture create? A far more complicated question—and one likely to seem too abstract to bother about for legislators focused on the threat of the week.

A Russian Hero of Liberty Looks Back on Communism

Renowned Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky reflects on the legacy of communism 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall in today’s Cato podcast.

According to him, the failure of Russia to acknowledge the criminal nature of its communist past—as was rightfully done in the case of Nazism after its demise—in large part explains the return of authoritarianism in Russia. There don’t seem to be any celebrations of the fall of communism planned in Russia, and the West is currently consumed with major issues including how to deal with Iran, the global financial crisis, etc. But valiant efforts to remind the world of the horrors of communism include the compelling new documentary, The Soviet Story, which features Bukovsky and new evidence of Soviet complicity with the Nazis. Join us for a screening of the movie at the Cato Institute on November 2.