One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist... I was like what do you mean he's not real. And she thought I was crying because it's like Santa Claus is not real and I was crying because there was no one coming with enough power to save us.
-- Geoffrey Canada (Harlem Children's Zone)
That's the quote used to set up the 2010 edu-propa-mentary film Waiting for Superman. Like many parts of the education reform movement, it's an inspired piece of misdirection, because reformsters have not only been waiting for Superman-- they've been counting on him.
The Flint and Detroit school disasters have focused national attention on Michigan's emergency manager law. That law has been percolating in Michigan for years, heated up by the folks at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy , a right-wing thinky tank that loves the idea of privatizing government and which has been funded by the usual suspects (Koch, Walton, DeVos). They started pushing for a new, powerful Czar-ship in 2005 and finally sold it in 2012 (You can read a more detailed account of the rise of the Emergency Manager in Michigan in this piece.) The adoption of the law was contentious, but the leaders of Michigan were determined that Superman would come, and when he came, they would be ready.
Because the emergency manager model doesn't just believe that Superman is coming-- it depends on it. Superman is coming, and we must prepare a place for him.
The emergency management system we see in Michigan is just one way of expressing the Superman Theory of Change-- there are Supermen among us, and they could save the lesser beings, if only we stopped holding them back. Superman could bring us excellence, but the enemy of excellence is bureaucracy and regulation and rules and, most of all, democracy.
Counting on Superman has led to a variety of initiatives. The various attempts to break tenure (like Vergara and Reed before it) have come from the belief that when Superman takes over a school district, he must (like a CEO) be free to hire and fire based on what he alone can see with his super vision. (And schools would work so much better if every classroom was taught by another Superman).
The need to break unions is part of the same trend. Unions tie Superman down, forcing him to follow a bunch of stupid rules every time he wants to strap on his cape and take to the skies.
Likewise, government regulations get in Superman's way, keeping him earthbound in a web of red tape. For a Superman believer like Jeb! Bush, it makes perfect sense to say that Flint's crisis was caused by too much regulation-- if the Supermen who emergency manage Flint and Detroit hadn't had to deal with local and federal authorities at all, they would have avoided this whole mess.
Superman also needs to be un-hampered by "politics." Reed Hastings (Netflix) famously supported the idea of doing away with elected school boards entirely, because they are too unstable, too susceptible to the will and whims of the public. This distaste for politics gives, in hindsight, a new understanding to the common complaint from reformsters a few years ago, who kept bemoaning how ed reform ideas like Common Core were being tripped up by "politics," meaning, we can now see, that people were trying to keep Superman from exerting his full powers.
Hastings saw a solution, and he wasn't the only one, in the steady replacement of public schools and their kryptonite mountains of rules and unions and regulations and democracy-- replacing all that with charter schools which are, after all, simply schools run by Superman as a permanent emergency manager from Day One. You can see it on Eva Moskowitz's bemused face every time someone tries to argue with her- "Why are you questioning me? Do you not see that I am Superman, come to save the less fortunate? Nobody tells me what to do."
Superman will save our schools. Well, not all our schools. The Ubermensch is most needed where the cities and schools are filled with Those People, those Lesser Humans who can't be trusted to vote properly, act properly, learn properly, and certainly not to chart their own course properly. No, it is Superman's burden to rescue those lesser beings.
Of course, those lesser beings are rarely found in rich communities. No, it's the poor, the brown, the black that need to be rescued by Superman, and anybody who stands in Superman's way is a racist on the wrong side of the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time, which is, apparently, that poor black and brown people deserve the opportunity to be rescued by Superman. Of course Those People should be silently grateful that Superman will choose for them what choices they are desperately in need of, which often includes training in how to be properly compliant, how to be happy in their proper place.
So across the country, some are not just waiting for Superman, but counting on him. Banking on him. Michigan needs Superman to come run many of its cities ( particularly the mostly-black ones). States across the nation need Superman to come run their school districts (particularly the mostly not white ones). Superman somehow knows the secret of running a city. Superman somehow knows the secret of educating children.
Some folks, folks who have been paying attention, have seen this coming for a while. The old emergency manager model was like a nurse, a FEMA or Red Cross coming to town to help stem the tide of disaster until folks could get back on their feet. But the new emergency managers are here to deal with the crisis that never ends because the Crisis is democratic local control. The crisis is that The Wrong People are in charge. We can work the problem slowly by setting obstacles to keep The Wrong People from voting, but it's even easier in a city like Detroit or a school district like Philadelphia to simply remove the need to vote, to strip democratically elected officials of any actual power.
Peoples' willingness to go along with this is at times frightening. What is the Friedrich case except a group of teachers saying, "We really ought to know our place and stop tugging on Superman's cape." And what kind of dark road have we traveled down to find so many people who think that Donald Trump is the ubermensch who will Save America (from all those non-white Those People) ?
There are people who believe that Superman really will come to actually save us, that he will do Really Good Things and therefor it's okay to prepare his throne. We give up democracy for nothing but the very best reasons. Scratch an NEA or AFT leader and I believe you'll find a sincere argument about why the union must back Clinton no matter what union members think they want. Scratch some reformsters and you will find a sincere argument about how some of the poor and downtrodden really must be saved by Superman.
And some of the crisis are real (and some have been manufactured-- but are still real). Detroit was no sunny paradise before an emergency manager was installed. Democracy can indeed be twisted to create unjust, unfair, oppressive outcomes. Democracy is not magical.
But here's the thing. Democracy may not be perfect. But Superman is not real.
The Superman plan is no plan. The Superman plan is, "We have a bunch of problems and challenges, so we will install Superman as an emergency manager of the city or the school district, or we will build a school district from scratch with Superman as the CEO, or bring Superman into a turnaround school, and Superman will just fix all the problems. That's our plan!" That's not a plan.
Look at the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP) slide show about Detroit schools. GLEP is a charter-favoring group started up by Dick and Betsy DeVos (Amway billionaires), and they are currently pushing for Detroit Public Schools to just be shut down. The slides collect a litany of DPS wrongdoing, screw-ups and failures, and it's a pretty horrifying litany. But at the end of this long list of DPS inadequacies, the "plan" is "close down DPS and replace it with a bunch of charters, so Superman can come save the children, somehow." That's not a plan, but it's not the first time a similar proposal has been made in this country.
Superman is not real. Superman is not waiting out there with deep, complete knowledge of how to make a school or a city successful and healthy in a single bound. I know this because if a Superman with such knowledge existed, we would have heard about him or her, and that ubermensch would be famous, and probably rich. Not only that, a real Superman with real answers would be convincing millions of people to follow those answers.
Superman is not real, but democracy is. The genius of this country has never been a single superbeing who provided the answer for an entire system or city or even corporation. There may have been people who were the face of a system or city or corporation, but they had an army of collaborators behind them, every single time. Superman comes equipped with powers bestowed at birth which he then proceeds to use as he best sees fit, but our nation's genius is to understand that the powers belong to the people, that government is created by the people, deriving its powers "from the consent of the governed." And, of course, there's that all people are created equal thing.
The people counting on Superman don't believe in democracy because they don't believe in equality. In their model of the universe, some people are just better than others. Some people should be in charge, and some people should not have a say. Some of the people who believe in Betterocracy or Rule by Superman are clearly evil and amoral, believing that it's okay to bilk those Lesser People for every penny ("If they didn't want to be treated like crap, they shouldn't have chosen to be poor.") Some Bettercrats are not destructive thieves; they feel an obligation to look out for the Lesser People, to provide those Lessers with what Superman decides they should have. These Bettercrats may even occasionally lessen the suffering in the world. But at the end of the day, they still believe that they are better than the poor and downtrodden, that they know best, that they are right to substitute their own voices and judgment for the voice and judgment of the people they take care of.
Because, after all, if Superman can come save the day, if Superman can replace mere mortal judgment with his own, if Superman can be given the freedom and power to take run a corporation or a school or an entire city, what better system could we have? Why simply wait for Superman when we can plow the road for him, remove the obstacles, silence the opponents (and for that matter the allies or beneficiaries) that might get in his way? Whether he has "emergency manager" on a business card or a big S on his chest, Superman will save the day.
They are counting on it.