Recently the film Backpack Full of Ca$h had it’s world premiere at the Philadelphia Film Festival on October 22 and 29. The film explores the real cost of privatizing America’s public schools. The film is narrated by Academy Award Winning Actor Matt Damon and directed by Sarah Mondale. The film was produced by Vera Aronow. The film also features Diane Ravitch, David Kirp and Linda Darling-Hammond.
The following is drawn from the the film’s press release.
Backpack Full of Cash explores the growing privatization of K-12 public schools and the resulting impact on America’s most vulnerable children. This 90-minute documentary takes viewers through the tumultuous 2013–14 school year, into the world of what is now called education “reform.” In Philadelphia and other big cities, public education – starved of resources – hangs in the balance.
Backpack Full of Cash examines the major threats to public education including the rapid growth of privately run charter schools, vouchers, standardized testing, cyber charter schools, and an attack on teachers. By contrast, the documentary film also showcases a well-resourced public school system in Union City, New Jersey, where less privileged kids are getting a high quality education and which some experts consider a model for improving public schools.
During the production the filmmakers, part of the team that made the award-winning 4-part PBS series SCHOOL: The Story of American Public Education narrated by Meryl Streep, covered schools in Philadelphia including South Philadelphia High, Vare-Washington Elementary and String Theory Charters.
“Philadelphia stood out for us,” noted Director Sarah Mondale, “because it has been a laboratory for school privatization for more than a decade. In recent years, the city has seen a rapid expansion of privately-run charter and cyber charter schools.” Producer Vera Aronow added: “We wanted to understand the impact of these reforms on the public schools, and to give the families and educators who are most affected, a chance to tell their own stories.”
The film focuses on school closures and mergers, as well as the alleged insufficient oversight of charter schools and the drastic cuts to Philadelphia public school funding, which played an outsized role in the 2014 Pennsylvania governor’s race.
According to the U.S. Department of Education: Public schools educate nearly 90% of American students – about 50 million children – and represent a huge block of government spending.
In 2013-14 (the school year this documentary was filmed) Philadelphia had 86 charter schools. Around 1/3 of district students in Philadelphia attend charter schools. The majority, around 2/3, (more than 142,000 in 2014) still attend traditional public schools.
Nationally, in 2013-14 $1.2 billion in public funds were used to pay for private school tuition, according to the American Federation for Children Growth Fund.
Under former Governor Corbett, Pennsylvania doubled the size of its private school “scholarship” program, leaving even less money for public schools like South Philadelphia High, according to REACH Foundation.
The filmmakers are also launching a crowd/supporter-funded Kickstarter campaign to raise the financial resources to launch a theatrical, community screening and social action campaign around the film in 2016-17.
The documentary was made with the cooperation of the Philadelphia School District, Superintendent William Hite,Education Officer Otis Hackney, City Councilwoman Helen Gym, and many local parents, students, community activists and groups such as Parents United for Public Education, Juntos, Youth United for Change, Media Mobilizing, as well as local teachers, journalists and Philadelphia citizens.
From the PFF program guide:
Philadelphia is at the forefront of this enlightening and alarming documentary narrated by Matt Damon that explores the effects and implications of diminishing funds for public schools and the growing concern over the charter school system.
In the fall of 2013, the Philadelphia community faced its biggest obstacle yet: providing an education to the city’s students despite closing 23 public schools. Under Governor Tom Corbett, public education funding was cut statewide by an estimated $1 billion and Philadelphia got the brunt of it, with over $300 million in budget cuts. This resulted in 4,100 job loses and the aforementioned school closings. With a student body poverty rate of over 90%, South Philadelphia High School’s 2013-2014 school year is featured as a prime example of a once celebrated educational institution forced to cut integral resources and staff vital to the school’s success. Despite these startling setbacks, some charter schools across the city seem to be flourishing in a sea of iPads, media arts studios, and more. Backpack Full Of Cash begs us to examine these privately-run institutions that receive public funding. Exploring what many call a war on public education in battleground cities like Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Nashville, the film serves as a wake-up call for citizens concerned about access to quality, equitable education for today’s students and future generations.
Director’s Statement – By Sarah Mondale:
In 2011 while working as a teacher in a suburban high school, I began to experience firsthand the effects of what is now known as “education reform” – a set of policies based on the idea that American public schools are failing. Like most Americans, I had gone to public schools, and was sending my children to public schools. While I knew that some public schools were struggling, especially those in big cities which were underfunded and segregated, I felt strongly that overall, the U.S. education system was doing a good job. In my view, critics were unfairly dominating the conversation in the media with their narrative of school failure, and eroding faith in the basic democratic promise of public education.
As a follow up to our successful 4-part PBS series narrated by Meryl Streep called SCHOOL: The Story of American Public Education, I began to research a new documentary that would find out what market-based reforms like charters and choice looked like from the perspective of students, parents and educators in the public schools. Were they in fact, destroying public schools in major U.S. cities? Was American public education being privatized? If so, what did that mean for our communities, our society and us as a nation?
What the film reveals is that the movement for “reform” has largely ignored the larger challenges that need to be addressed — child poverty, racial segregation and unequal funding. America’s public school system is not “broken” as so many reformers say, but as Backpack Full of Cash shows, it is highly unequal. To me, the most important question posed by this film is: Why dismantle public schools, instead of making them work well, for every child?
It is my hope that Backpack Full of Cash will raise a conversation about the danger of losing public schools and what happens when schools lack resources. Also, and most importantly, I believe that the film can shift the tone of the education debate so that rather than starting with the assumption that the entire system is failing, and in need of “reinvention,” attention is instead directed towards schools — and students — that need it the most. Backpack Full of Cash adds depth and complexity to what has become a highly-charged national debate over public schooling.
Even though the film is premiering at the Philadelphia Film Festival on October 22nd and 29th the filmmakers STILL HAVE SOME WORK TO DO before they can release the film to a wider audience on television, in theaters, streaming online and elsewhere. In order to raise crucial finishing funds needed to pay license fees for archival footage, photos and music and put the technical finishing touches on the film they have launched a Kickstarter campaign. Check out the project and the video here and please share with friends, contacts, anyone you think might enjoy and be supportive of the film. Thank you!
Also, read in the Washington Post more about why Matt Damon helped make this new film here. Damon stated:
I got involved in the making of ‘Backpack Full of Cash’ because it tells the important story of how current education reform policies are increasing inequality and causing harm to our most vulnerable children.
The expansion of charter schools is draining funds from our public schools and benefiting some children while leaving others behind with fewer resources. We need a public school system that gives every child an equal chance to a great education.
I had that chance in the public schools I attended and I want to see it given — fairly and on an even playing field — to every child in our nation.
“Backpack Full of Cash” helps us realize that true education equity will come when we address the deeper issues underlying education inequality such as child poverty, racial segregation, and the unequal funding of our schools.
The film is nearing completion and readiness for full distribution, please help make this happen. Here’s the Kickstarter link: