To Understand Education Issues, Watch TV.

Monday, May 21, 2001 at 1:00am

If you want a street-level view of education issues, but don't know any

street-level educators, you could do a lot worse than watching Boston

Public, television producer David E. Kelley's take on public education


A recovering Boston lawyer, Kelley (who is also, irrelevantly but not

uninterestingly, the husband of Michelle Pfeiffer) been responsible for some

of the finest drama on television, from his earliest stint as a writer on

L.A. Law to the creator of Picket Fences and The Practice.

Kelley's work gets critically rapped for being over the top and there's no

denying the loopiness of many of his plot points. But often lost in the

criticism is his earnest (by Hollywood standards anyway) and often

politically incorrect explorations of contemporary political and social


Boston Public continues this trend. The show (whose season finale is

tonight, (EDITOR: MONDAY THE 21ST) on FOX at 7:00) is set in Beantown's

fictional Winslow High. At the center of events are Principal Steven Harper

(Chi McBride) and his very capable but also socially inept lieutenant

Assistant Principal Scott Guber (Anthony Heald).

As usually happens in the closed universe of a television series, anything

that can possibly go wrong in a high school does so at Winslow:

A teacher fires a gun (filled with blanks) in his class to make a point;

parents are outraged. Another teacher, this one a manic depressive, writes

"gone to kill myself, hope you're happy" on a chalkboard and deserts her

classroom of delinquents. Yet another teacher, the doddering Harvey

Lipschultz (played exquisitely by Kelley favorite Fyvush Finkel) kicks a

student out of his class for not wearing a bra.

And that was just the first episode. Since then, Harper and Guber have

gone through so much you could excuse them for thinking Job got off light.

All well and good, and of course it's easy to come up with outlandish

things on a television show. The hard part is going somewhere with it

(remember how Twin Peaks suddenly sputtered after six episodes?) What makes

Boston Public so good is Kelley's trademark way of presenting multiple sides

of important issues.

On most television shows, a geeky student who has a Columbine-like "hit

list" would be either kicked out or immersed in sensitivity therapy

forthwith, and an Afternoon Special moral would be attached at the end. On

Boston Public, the very real question of thought policing is examined, with

Harper deciding that the "hit list", a fantasy story about getting back at

the kids who bullied the student (including hanging him out a third-story

window by his feet), was just the student venting his frustrations in a

harmless and even healthy manner. This and the fact that the student has

shown no tendencies toward violence in the past convince Harper to let the

student stay. It is only later, when the imperious superintendent gets wind

of the "list" and fears legal liability, that the student is unceremoniously

shipped out despite Harper's objections and with only a minimum of due


On most television shows, the cheerleading advisor who choreographs a

routine more apt for a strip joint than halftime in a high school gym would

be portrayed as a heroine, standing up for self-expression against a

despotic school administration that wants to ban the performance. On Boston

Public, Harper makes it clear that his high school will not sponsor a

routine where high school girls bump, grind, and fondle themselves. If they

wish to do that, according to Harper, they can do it somewhere else. Moral

considerations get a fair shake in Hollywood! Who knew?

On most television shows, the issue of race is (both literally and

figuratively) black and white. Conservatives are racists; liberals are not.

On Boston Public, the issue isn't so simple. A Jewish teacher makes

racially charged comments at the drop of a hat ("Is he black?", he asks when

the police say a criminal is hiding out in the school building). A

self-described liberal social studies teacher realizes that she grades her

black students harder than her white students. One storyline even revolved

around how Principal Harper, who is black, treats black parents differently,

and often more condescendingly, than whites.

To be sure, Kelley will never be mistaken for a conservative; it is clear

where his political sympathies generally lie. And the show will

occasionally veer into bleeding heart territory, as in the episode where a

teacher tries in vain to obtain a mortgage for a new (and overly expensive)

house, climaxing in an overwrought soliloquy about teacher salaries.

Unlike shows such as the overrated West Wing, however, where conservatives

are presented in typical Hollywood strawman fashion, hardly an episode of

Boston Public goes by in which the conservative viewpoint doesn't score a

point or two.

Many teachers I have spoken with enjoy the show and identify with a lot of

it. This was Kelley's intent: a show that is the antidote for tired

teen-centered shows like Dawson's Creek and Party of Five by placing

teachers at center stage and casting the kids, for once, as supporting


I don't know what it says about the current state of political discourse

that a television show provides more insight into an issue than a whole ream

of position papers (including those I have written). I do know that a

television show that manages to do so deserves a look by anyone interested

in public education, especially those who want to be entertained along the


A. Roger Abramson is a lawyer and senior research and policy analyst for the

Tennessee Institute for Public Policy and can be reached at 327-3120 ext.

102 or

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