Steven Schulman: Waiting on Super Action

One of the best aspects of my wonderful job is that I get to touch so many different areas. In the morning I am a human rights lawyer, advising refugees; by mid-day I am a civil rights litigator; in the early afternoon, I discuss micro-finance with my transactional partners; later I go to Capitol Hill to lobby for improving our immigration courts; and in the evening – at least on this evening – I work on education reform.

I had the pleasure tonight to host a panel of educators prior to a screening of the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which addresses the failings of the U.S. public education system. In Akin Gump’s New York office we had Richard Barth, CEO of KIPP; Jason Levy, Principal of NY CIS 339 in the Bronx; and Rafiq Kalam Id-Din III, a former law firm associate and the founder of Teaching Firms of America-Professional Preparatory Charter School in Brooklyn. Our panelists were open and honest, and led a spirited debate about the film, the state of the public school system, and the opportunities to fix it. I won’t repeat what was said, in part because I didn’t ask the panelists for permission to quote them on the record, and in part because there is already plenty written that summarizes the debate well (including here, here, and here), but mostly because seeing this film made me think about our country more broadly.

We are failing. Not just at educating our children, but in nearly every aspect of our communal life that matters, really matters. Our infrastructure is a mess – my own DC Metro system is an embarrassment now, with one in six of its long escalators out of service. There is no fix on the horizon for our broken immigration system, which offers no hope for the millions living in the shadows, even the many who have lived in this country for years and established solid and respectable lives. We refuse to take leadership on climate change, though there is pretty clear international consensus that something must be done, and our energy policy hasn’t budged significantly since the 1970s. Income inequality is at record levels, and no one in power seems to care too much about it.

Even our nation’s greatest supposed strength – upward mobility – has become a mirage. According to Opportunity Nation (an organization trying to address the opportunity gap in the U.S., and pro bono client of my firm), 42% of Americans born in the lowest quintile of will stay in that bracket. That’s worse than Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Germany – and the United Kingdom! Good god, that’s a country that still has a monarchy and an institutionalized class system (not to mention absurd hats), and where the term “commoner” remains in good usage. And we aren’t even close to the UK on this score – 70% of her subjects move out of the bottom quintile, while only 58% of our fellow citizens make a similar jump up the ladder.

As “Waiting for Superman” pointed out, though, we Americans are still good at something – and that is confidence. Our students consistently rank relatively low, or no better than average, on international educational tests. But our children are the most confident in their own abilities. This is not, at least in my observation, unique to our children. As Americans, we think of our country as superlative, so much so that our own President must defend his own belief in American exceptionalism.

It is time now that we either put up or shut up. We cannot have a crumbling infrastructure, a failing public education system, dysfunctional immigration policies, grossly unfair income equality, and declining opportunity, and still call ourselves the greatest nation on earth. Our grandparents and parents earned the right to make this claim by winning World War II, building the Interstate highway system, ending segregation and putting a man on the moon. We simply have not yet risen to the challenges of our time, and thus have, for now, forfeited those bragging rights. If we work hard, we can put our children in a position to make the claim once again. Richard, Rafiq and Jason, and others like them, give me hope that we can all pull together and solve the big problems that confront us. But for now, we all need to put action first, and let our words follow.


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