California Educator

May / June 2017

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T he phrase "backpack full of cash" implies shady transactions, such as drug dealing or arms smuggling. But the new documen- tary Backpack Full of Cash depicts something equally sinister : the privatization of education and how it can rob poor students of the education they deserve. Backpack offers a painful look at the impact on traditional schools when funding is diverted for privately run schools. ough it focuses primarily on schools in Philadelphia and New Orleans, it's a must-see for Califor- nians to fully comprehend where the state may be headed soon if the pro-charter movement is not held accountable. It's not pretty. When traditional schools lose students, they lose money for librarians, teachers, smaller class sizes, music and books. Meanwhile, schools' operating costs stay the same, since districts must still pay for Backpack Full of Cash Documentary narrated by Matt Damon offers frightening look at privatization By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin Scenes from Backpack Full of Cash, in Philadelphia: Protest against school privatization; a student and his mother in front of Abigail Vare Elementary, now closed and set to be sold to a real estate developer. salaries, transportation, maintaining buildings and "keep- ing the lights on," explains narrator Matt Damon, actor and public education advocate, whose mother is a teacher. Backpack was made by Sarah Mondale, an Emmy- nominated filmmaker and public school teacher in New York. The title is based on corporate reformers' belief that every student should be allowed to take their share of public education dollars — a "backpack full of cash" — to a school of their choice, whether a corporate-run charter school, online school, religious school or other private school. How- ever, the phrase could also apply to billionaires — the Gates, Walton and Broad families — who spend millions to elect pro-charter, pro-voucher candidates nationwide in ongoing efforts to pri- vatize public education. Backpack opens at South Philadelphia High School, where there is a closetful of band uniforms but no music teacher, a library but no librarian, and just two counselors for more than 1,000 students. Heartbreaking scenes show suffering students trying their best in a dis- trict on the verge of financial collapse. One says tearfully, "ey want to see us fail." Meanwhile, across town, a brand-new charter school welcomes students in gleaming, high-tech classrooms. But all is not as it seems. We learn that the charter schools cherry-pick students based on expectations of how they will perform on stan- dardized tests. Philly charter schools have mostly white students in a city of mostly minorities. English learners and students with special needs are routinely "counseled out." Some charter schools mete out harsh punishments to students who do not sit up straight or keep their eyes on their teacher. Some charter schools go bankrupt and close. School scenes are interwoven with comments of edu- cators, students, parents, education experts, voucher and charter proponents, and others who explain that the privatization movement is part of a plan to defund public education by draining resources from public schools. Education writer David Kirp fears public schools that educate both rich and poor are fast becoming an endan- gered species. He explains that billionaires pump resources into charter schools to make them showcases so they can make the case for more charters and say they are better than traditional schools — even though numerous studies show students in charter schools perform no better than students in traditional schools. The message that public schools are failing and stu- dents need alternatives coincided with impossible goals set under No Child Left Behind, says education expert Diane Ravitch, who can be seen in the film addressing CTA 42 teaching & learning

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