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‘Backpack Full of Cash’ Documentary Fuels Controversy Over School Choice

By Mark Walsh — October 12, 2017 5 min read
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The filmmakers behind a documentary that defends the public school system and is critical of market-based reforms are not backing down from criticisms from a prominent school choice advocate.

“Jeanne Allen’s attacks make me think that our film is having an effect; it’s getting noticed,” said Sarah Mondale, the director and producer of “Backpack Full of Cash.”

The 93-minute film has been shown at film festivals and community screenings over the last year, but it gained fresh attention this month when Allen, the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, publicly criticized the filmmakers, saying they misled her about their purposes for interviewing her and turned a phrase of hers about the portability of per-pupil aid into the title of a film that is against school choice.

“I wouldn’t call this encounter transparent or dignified,” Allen said in an interview. (Her criticisms were first reported last week in The Hollywood Reporter.)

Early in the documentary, in a clip from an interview Allen gave the filmmakers, the school choice proponent says, “Every one of our children should have a backpack full of cash strapped on their back and our schools should vie for the privilege of educating our kids and having that backpack turned over to them.”

BACKPACK FULL OF CASH Official Trailer from Stone Lantern Films on Vimeo.

Allen told me that she believes the filmmakers use the comment out of context by stressing the idea that the backpack full of cash would then go to line the pockets of corporate interests, and by using her phrase as the documentary’s title.

“For them, the stress is on the cash,” Allen said. “For those of us who believe that the backback full of cash, or money following the student, is a way to have a better education for everyone, it is about equity.”

Allen is quoted at least a couple more times during the film, including about the idea of breaking up public school bureaucracies and the hold of teachers’ unions.

Allen acknowledges that she hasn’t seen the documentary in full, but based her criticisms on the few clips she has been able to see. (She shared an email from the filmmakers that withdrew an offer of a private screening this week.)

“She expresses her views very articulately in the film,” Mondale told me. “It’s the idea of portability—that every child should be able to take his or her share of government money to the school of his or her choice.”

“We stand by our reporting,” Mondale said.

A Rebuttal to ‘Superman’

Mondale, who directed and co-produced the four-part 2001 PBS series “School: The Story of American Public Education,” told me she was motivated to make a documentary defending public schools and examining who is behind support for school choice after seeing “Waiting for ‘Superman’.”

That 2010 documentary by Davis Guggenheim was likely the highest-grossing education documentary of all time. Its focus on students vying for scarce spots in high-demand charter schools was dramatic, and the film had ardent supporters and critics.

Mondale was one of the critics. She set out to make a rebuttal to “Waiting for ‘Superman’.”

Guggenheim “is a good filmmaker, there’s no doubt about it,” Mondale said, but “‘Superman’” was “propaganda for charter schools and was very one-sided.”

“Backpack Full of Cash” is narrated by Matt Damon, whose mother, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, is a an advocate for public schools and retired education professor.

“A battle is underway over who should control public education,” Damon says at the beginning of the documentary. “Parents, teachers, and activists are up against a well-organized coalition led by business leaders and conservatives. They call themselves education reformers, and many want to privatize America’s public schools.”

The film highlights voices in favor of public schools and against market-based reforms such as Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University, and David L. Kirp of the University of California, Berkeley.

It criticizes charter schools, including online charters, as well as private school vouchers and tuition tax credits.

“Despite evidence of discriminatory practices nationwide, charter schools have become go-to charities for some of the nation’s wealthiest donors,” Damon says in the film, citing Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family as heading “the Big Three foundations that support choice.”

The filmmakers visited an ExcelinEd conference featuring former Florida governor and school choice proponent Jeb Bush, which is where they asked Allen to do an interview for the documentary.

“Backpack” doesn’t quite match “Waiting for ‘Superman’” for narrative drama, but it does strive to tell of some of the challenges and promises of traditional public schools.

The documentary follows the 2013-14 year at South Philadelphia High School, where Marian Anderson, Chubby Checker, and Frankie Avalon attended school, but where there is now no money for a music program. The film suggests the growth of charter schools in Philadelphia has strapped traditional public schools of resources.

Charters such as the String Theory school “are islands of privilege in a sea of inequity,” public school activist Helen Gym, now a member of the Philadelphia City Council, says in the film.

Otis Hackney, then the principal of South Philadelphia High and now the chief education officer of the city’s school system, suggests that charter schools are able to rid themselves of troublemaking students, who must then go back to the traditional public system.

The film points to Union City, N.J., as an urban district that has been able to see major gains, in part because of school finance legal decisions in New Jersey. The documentary lets Kirp, the author of the book Improbable Scholars about the Union City transformation, tell that part of the story.

Allen has also been highly critical of Damon for his agreement to narrate the film when he sends his own children to private schools.

“We’d like to give kids in failing public schools the same choices that [Damon] has because he has money,” Allen said.

She said Damon may have been “duped” into aiding the film, and the Center for Education Reform launched an online effort to “educate” the actor so he’ll “realize he’s on the wrong side of the issue.”

Damon hasn’t responded to the criticism, but Mondale said Damon “does not need to be educated on these issues. Where people send their own kids to school doesn’t mean they can’t support public institutions.”

Mondale said the filmmakers are in discussions over potential wider means of release for “Backpack Full of Cash,” such as in theaters or on TV.

Allen, meanwhile, said she doesn’t mind if her criticisms have boosted the profile of the film.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.