It was a different one that addressed tenure — how to reward good teachers and how to remove bad teachers. It was an improvement in the right direction. Probably the best news I have heard since finishing the film is a great new law in Colorado, which Weingarten help negotiate, that radically rethinks seniority, tenure, and the way teachers are evaluated, assessing them on data and rewarding them for achieved results. It’s groundbreaking, and the tremors are starting to spread throughout the education system, and other states are looking at it. So there’s a lot of reason for optimism.
What do you think of lottery system?
Lottery systems are the only fair way to do something that is unfair. It’s a heartbreaking process that for me is a metaphor for “Why can’t we have a great school for every kid?”
What’s the impetus for the film?
Time. Back in 1968, I lived in D.C. and asked my mom why I was bussed all the way over to Virginia to go to school, and she said, ‘Because the schools are broken.’ Forty years later, I have my own kids and I am driving by three public schools each day [as I take my kids to private school] because they’re broken. And that sense of time is powerful. When I was a kid and it was broken, I thought it was an isolated incident and it might get better, but this is no longer an isolated incident. If the schools were in trouble in 1968, they are in cardiac arrest now. Broken schools for two generations is a big problem. We know what happens when you fail a kid, but what happens when you fail over time? I had to make a film that was a wake-up call. We are in trouble if we don’t fix this.
Can the system be fixed?
We know it can work. With the emergence of high-performing charters like KIPP and Harlem Children’s Zone, it’s not an exaggeration to say they have broken the sound barrier. They have proven you can go into the toughest neighborhoods, where people blame poverty and minorities. They have gone in there and proven that every kid can learn and they’re putting 90 percent of their kids in college, and you cannot deny this remarkable success. So we have the ingredients; now all we need is the political will. And the film is about the political-will part.
What was your biggest discovery in making the film?
When you drive to East L.A. or Harlem — some of the toughest neighborhoods around — and you knock on somebody’s door, you don’t know what you’re going to find; and you do bring with you these preconceptions. And what you find everywhere are mothers and fathers that want what I want: they want a great school for their kids. And you find kids that are like my kids: they have big dreams. This whole idea that those parents don’t care is so wrong, it’s insulting.
So what’s next for you?
I’m done, I’m spent. I am going to take a three-month nap. This one nearly killed me. This was the hardest movie I have ever made. I had many crises of conscience, or one extended one. It’s not like global warming, where you can get angry at a corporate polluter or Exxon. Here, I found that the things I held very close, the Democratic Party and unions, were part of the problem. To make a film exposing that was hard.