There was a moment when I was tempted to give up on the movie due to a crisis of conscience over how to handle the teachers' unions. The problem was that everything I was learning from reformers and educators on the ground was flying in the face of some core beliefs of mine that I'd thought were unassailable.
My commitment to the idea of protecting workers' rights traces back to my childhood awareness of the progressive movement, when I learned that unions have played a vital role in defending the rights of working people and making sure that everyone in our society has an opportunity to prosper, not just the wealthy and not just heads of corporations. I still believe in that idea.
And yet wherever I would go in the American school system, even back when I was making The First Year, I ran into a conflicting idea, which is that teachers' unions have played a big role in perpetuating the problems that plague our schools. When I was filming scenes in schools, as soon as the cameras were turned off, people would quietly tell me, "You know, we just can't fix these things until we change the unions," or, "The only reason why our school is succeeding is because we don't have a union contract." I was amazed to hear these sentiments from everybody: administrators, principals, school board members, and even teachers.
And so at a certain point in the middle of making the movie, I had to decide whether to bring out this really uncomfortable truth or to back away from it and hedge it. I was worried that maybe I was betraying the ideals I shared with so many friends and family members, and I was afraid people I admire would turn on me. But I started to realize that this kind of thinking keeps things from getting any better, and that protecting the status quo so as not to offend anyone does nothing to help kids.
In the end I made a pact with myself that I wasn't going to pull any punches. I would be fair and honest...not sensationalistic...but I was going to speak the truth that reasonable people who were in the trenches were telling me. And it wasn't just about the teachers' unions. I decided to be tough on all of the adults whenever they put their own interests ahead of those of the kids...starting with my own hypocrisy in driving past three public schools with my own children. In the film, I reveal the very uncomfortable truth about the role of the Democratic Party, which receives more campaign contributions from the teachers' unions than from any other source, as well as the parade of politicians who give lip-service to education reform but refuse to take the hard steps necessary to make it happen.