PFF25: Backpack Full of Cash

Lacy Lew Nguyen Wright - November 1, 2016

Who is the voice of education reform? Evidently, Matt Damon.

Backpack Full of Cash, a new documentary on growing school privatization, is narrated by Matt Damon, a longtime advocate for school reform whose mother is an early childhood educator in Boston. But it’s not his voice that is the most impactful. With the barrage of calls for school reform, and input from legislators, researchers and reformers, Backpack Full of Cash speaks to the people most ignored in these discussions - the students and educators. The people who lend their voice the most to the film are students, parents, teachers, local principals, and community organizers.

The film made its debut last week at the Philadelphia Film Festival, which is fitting considering it focuses so heavily on Philadelphia, a district that has seen many public schools shut down as the number of alternative schools grows. Throughout, the film features interviews with many Philadelphia locals, including councilwoman Helen Gym, a founder of Parents United for Public Education, South Philly High Principal Otis Hackney, and multiple students struggling to cope with the lack of resources and constant reshuffling in a district that has seen so many recent closures.

This is likely influenced by the director’s background in education. Director and producer Sarah Mondale currently works as a teacher in addition to her filmmaking, which includes the award winning PBS series School: The Story of American Public Education. The project was a collaboration with producer and editor Vera Aronow, who directed the first episode of that same series. Their longtime interest in the public school system is reflected in the film’s advocacy for a system that seems to be slowly abandoned for other alternatives.

Backpack Full of Cash takes an in-depth look at the growing privatization of public school systems, which is often marketed as a superior alternative to the bleak picture of public schools painted in the media. Today’s students have the option of not only their own neighborhood public school, but also online schools, charter schools, and private schools, all vying for the metaphorical “backpack full of cash” that is the government’s allocated funding for each child’s education.

This film takes a harsh stand against many of the ideas behind one of the most famous documentaries on school reform, Waiting for Superman, released in 2011. Waiting for Superman shocked viewers at its release for revealing the decline of the public school system and heavily focusing on the charter school system as an answer. But Backpack Full of Cash is the public school system’s response to the growing notion that school choice is the answer to the failure of public schools.

The filmmakers behind Backpack Full of Cash compare school choice to a private market, where students can shop around different types of schools, picking out the best option to bring their backpack to. While more options sound positive, this documentary shows that the growing number of alternatives are often not as amazing as they market themselves to be.

Programs like the voucher system, which allows students to use funds that would have been used at their neighborhood schools at outside private institutions, and online school programs often take taxpayer money to schools and are run by for-profit companies. Studies showed many provide subpar education, with cases of schools allowing corporal punishment and others teaching that humans lived among the dinosaurs.

And what of the long-touted charter school movement, which are schools that are privately run but publicly funded? Originally charter schools were planned as experimental schools working to develop techniques that would eventually be used at public schools and meant to serve the students with the highest need. In reality, they are run like the efficient businesses that so many advocates for privatization had hoped for.

However, businesses must also work to cut costs, which, for charter schools, means weeding out difficult students, including disadvantaged students, second language learners, and students with learning disabilities who can be seen as more costly to the school. Where do these students go? Back to the public schools, who bear the brunt of the work-support students, without recognition or funding.

So if privatization and charters are not the answer the failing schools, what is? According to Backpack Full of Cash, the answer has not been in a new school or fancy pedagogy, but just a reinvestment in the schools we already have. For proof look no further than Union City, New Jersey.

In deep contrast to the Philadelphia schools, which have been expanding the number of privately run charters and online schools, Union City reinvested in its public schools and ensured equal funding for schools in both wealthy and low-income communities, to marvelous results.

Backpack Full of Cash did something that so few documentaries on schools have done. It gave a voice to the traditional school system and the educators that keep it running, despite its lack of funding and lack of recognition in discussions on reform. The film argues that schools cannot be businesses, but instead need to address the needs of all students—a system based on effort, not efficiency.

Perhaps the answer has not been in new inventive school types or added technologies, but a reinvestment in the public schools and, more importantly, the students for whom schools can be a source of support in communities where there are none.

Lacy Lew Nguyen Wright

Lacy is a senior studying Art History and Urban Education Policy. And like her coffee she's small, strong but comes with a kick. Lacy covers documentaries and gender representation in media.