I used to find it disturbing; now I just find it amusing...that stare I get when I tell people that my next film is about the public education system. Even the most decent people retreat to a polite smile and fumble for something nice to say that basically amounts to, "Oh, that's so noble." In reality, they're saying, "Good luck getting people to see that one."
The sad truth is this response is understandable. The story of public education has been told many times over the last forty years, and often very movingly. But on the whole, most people feel it's a static and hopeless story. The dark voices inside people's heads say, "Why open my heart to a problem which is confusing and never seems to get any better?" or, "We've heard all the sob stories before, and all we've accomplished is to get depressed and feel guilty."
That is why, when Diane Weyerman called from Participant Media asking if I wanted to make a movie on the current state of public education in America, I said I wasn't interested. I was flattered by the offer, but I told her I didn't think it could be done...at least not in a way that would make a real difference. The issue was so complex, it was a story-teller's quagmire.
That was in August of 2007. A month later, I heard the dark voices speaking...inside my own head. It was back-to-school week, and I was driving the familiar route past three public schools to my kids' private school. Years earlier my wife and I had researched our neighborhood public school and discovered it wasn't up to snuff. So we did what other who parents did who can afford it, we opened up our wallets and paid lots of money so that our kids could get a great education. But today the voice was strong and insistent: "You've found a great school for your kids...but is that enough? You've pulled your kids from the system and turned your back on the problem. Your kids will be okay, but what about other people's children?" That last question was the worst one of all...the one I couldn't seem to shake.
"Other peoples children"...that phrase kept echoing in my head like a challenge. How do I get people to care as much about other people's children as they do their own? Without making a decision, it was decided. And I had no choice. I was going to try again to tell this story, even though I had no clue how.