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 firstname.lastname@example.org.