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“How much would you give me to pass my course?”

One would think, what teacher in her right mind would say something like this? In an instant, she would be fired and never seen in a classroom again. Well, one would think. A student being interviewed for the movie Left Behind: the Story of the New Orleans Public Schools, a title that explains it all, says that his teacher asked him that very question. And it’s not that unusual.

New Orleans is notorious for having the worst public school system in the country. It’s ranked below Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, yet it’s also a part of the richest country in the world. What’s wrong? Why is it so disastrous?

There is not one clear answer. We’ve read about some of these problems in the newspaper: the valedictorian who couldn’t pass a tenth grade-level exam, students who fail the LEAP test five times and struggle to graduate, crooked School Board members, and the list goes on.

New Orleans is also known for its crooked politics, and these politicians seem even more monstrous when you realize it isn’t just about them stealing funds from the state. Those pocketing money that should be going to education don’t seem to understand that, in the long run, the city (and not just the children) are being hurt and have to deal with the unfortunate consequences. Because of poor education, fewer businesses wish to come down to New Orleans, Louisiana is ranked as the poorest state, and we incarcerate more people per capita than anyone else, and we’re one of the most violent cities, in the industrialized nation.

The teachers are also thoroughly blamed. One student says that he has no textbooks for any of his classes. Another tells of how less than half the students in his class has books. The same student smuggles a camera into his classroom to show how the class operates, and the teacher roughhouses with one of the students when he should be instructing them on something that they can use later in life.

One scene shows a ceremony that swears in a new members of the school board, giving the citizens some hope as they applaud. However, like in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, this year’s film about the fight for Ireland’s freedom, we see that ceremony does not solve the issue at hand: it only blinds us to it for a little while.

Even though the ending is supposed to leave us feeling upbeat (which it does), I can’t help but remember all the damning information that comes before it. I was instantly reminded of the ending of John Sayles’ City of Hope, which is about a city run by corruption and ulterior motives. At the end of the movie, two people in need scream for help, and the only one who can hear them is a crazy guy who always stand on the street corner. In one long take, he begins running around in circles, screaming, “Help! Help! Help!” and nobody comes.

It’s a disturbing scene but beautiful in the way it shows a certain level of helplessness when, in the end, all the decisions are being made by people whose number-one interest is not the people they are supposed to be serving.

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