As the crucial topic of education proves to be top of mind in the 2020 presidential elections, documentary film, “Backpack Full of Cash,” narrated by Academy award-winning actor and activist Matt Damon, reveals the devastating consequences of privatizing America’s public schools. Having screened over 360 times in 39 states and nine countries including nine film festivals, this feature-length documentary follows the tumultuous 2013-14 academic year in cities throughout the United States where public schools are starved of resources and undermined by market-based education reforms.
“I got involved in Backpack Full of Cash because I believe that every kid should have access to great public schools,” said the film’s narrator Matt Damon, whose mother is an educator. “The problem is that both parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, are applying these business metrics to education and there’s so much more nuance to that. The film does a really good job of raising awareness about these issues.”
The growth of charters, vouchers and related tax incentives, and DeVos’ plan to expand “school choice” while cutting public school funding points to education as a major, divisive issue in many upcoming state and local elections. Charter enrollment has nearly tripled in the last 10 years, while the number of students using vouchers has increased more than two-fold, according to estimates provided by groups favoring school choice.
“The public simply doesn’t understand that their public schools are being taken away. From Los Angeles to Detroit to Washington, DC, city after city is losing public education,” said former Assistant Secretary of Education and public education activist Diane Ravitch, who appears in the film.
A poll by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds that 58 percent of all Americans have heard little or nothing about charter schools and 66 percent have heard little or nothing about school vouchers. “Many people don’t know much about charters and vouchers and are alarmed to learn about the extent to which the network of so-called ‘reforms’ promoted under the banner of school choice are threatening public education,” said Sarah Mondale, the film’s director.
Interest from Latinx audiences – a prime target for charter advocates – prompted filmmakers to launch a Spanish-language rollout of the film with Spanish subtitles and screening resources, funded with a grant from The Schott Foundation for Public Education. On Tuesday, June 11, 2019, the United Federation of Teachers will host a film screening of BACKPACK in Spanish and English for members of the community.
“We’ve launched a public information campaign to help educate people on the real-life impact of charter schools, vouchers, testing, and privatization ahead of the 2020 elections,” said Producer Vera Aronow.
Through the eyes of principals, teachers, activists, parents and most hearteningly, students, BACKPACK debunks myths about privately-run charter and voucher schools, and explores the evolving fight for public education, a cornerstone of American democracy. The film also showcases a model for improvement in Union City, New Jersey, where investment in public schools gives poor kids a high-quality education – without charters or vouchers.
“What’s going on in public schools like Union City is proof that if you provide enough resources to a school district and you help that district use those resources wisely, you get astonishing results. You get these improbable and fantastic scholars,” said education writer David Kirp, who appears in the documentary.
Sarah Mondale, Director and Co-producer of Backpack, directed and co-produced the award-winning, four-part PBS series SCHOOL: The Story of American Public Education narrated by Meryl Streep. Backpack filmmakers Sarah Mondale and Vera Aronow are available to attend community screenings and talkbacks. Screener and interviews available now.