Education is a hot-button issue, both politically and personally. But I still couldn’t believe the reaction to President Obama‘s Back-to-School speech two weeks ago. Right-wing zealots raging about how it should be boycotted? School districts in Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin actually complying and boycotting the broadcast of the speech?
The speech, as it turned out, could have very well come from the lips of Ronald Reagan, or Ayn Rand for that matter: it was all about the individual’s responsibility — specifically, the student’s — to succeed.

So I was interested in watching The Principal Story, the POV doc about two school principals in Chicago, to see how it addressed that hot-button issue. But incredibly, I felt that it barely touched it — despite a cameo from Arne Duncan before he became secretary of education. There’s not even a mention of No Child Left Behind. It’s just about some students, teachers and two principals doing their best to educate the children at their schools.

The strongest message I get from The Principal Story is that our schools are in trouble, and that we need smart people who care to make them better. It’s not exactly a new message, but one we need to be reminded of. It could be deemed pretty non-partisan — but then I think about the current status of public schools in my hometown, New York City, and how the Board of Education has decided that in order to cut costs, principals must hire within the current teacher pool rather than hiring newly trained teachers (read: smart people who care). So we’ll be stuck with older (and probably less energetic) teachers instead of fresh, bushy-tailed ones.

That’s the political subtext I found myself thinking about after watching The Principal Story. I wonder what the right-wingers might cook up. I’m surprised there isn’t an organized boycott already in place, for some half-baked opposition to the politics of The Principal Story — a doc that is as inspiring, and yet non-polemical, as Obama’s recent speech.

Published by

Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen