California Educator

May / June 2017

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Q&A With Sarah Mondale Director of Backpack Full of Cash and head of Stone Lantern Films, which co-produced the film with Turnstone Productions. members at a conference. But schools are not failing, says Ravitch, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education. "Test scores are the highest they've ever been in Amer- ican history. e dropout rate is the lowest it's ever been. And people are shocked to hear this because there's been this constant din of failure, failure, decline, decline." Next, it's on to New Orleans, where charter school operators rushed in to take over the decimated public school system after Hurricane Katrina. Vouchers — referred to as "scholarships" — were also approved in Louisiana, allowing private schools to use taxpayer money to educate students. e headmaster of a Christian school where half the students receive vouchers tells the filmmakers his school's curriculum is based on creationism, and teachers discuss "the theory of evolution and why it's not true." Why did you make this film? I come from a family of teachers. My mother taught English to adult immigrants in the public schools of Washington, D.C. My grandmother taught in a rural one-room schoolhouse. I have worked as a teacher myself. My father was a professor of American studies who believed deeply in the importance of public education for our democracy. So some years back, when I started hearing the constant repetition of the "Public schools are failing" narrative in the media, I felt like I had to do something. What were some of the challenges in getting it made? We sent out our first fundraising pro- posals in fall 2011. We started shooting in 2012. We ran out of money in 2016. So we launched a Kickstarter campaign, and got help from over 400 people from all over the country (and from other countries too!), including parents and teachers. We finished the film in April. Now we need to get it out to the public. We are seeking funds for distribution. Another challenge was figuring out how to tell the story in a way that makes sense to viewers. I think teachers understand what a charter school is and how vouchers drain money from public schools, but most non educators find these issues confusing. The coded language used by advocates of school "choice" makes it even harder. Our intention was to try to connect the dots between charter schools, vouchers, high-stakes testing, cyber charters, and the privatization movement, and take a big-picture look at how they are impact- ing public schools, including the most vulnerable children who rely on them. The heroes of the film are educators, parents, activists and students who are fighting for their own education. What kind of reaction are you getting in screenings? So far, the film has gotten enthusiastic responses from audiences. Educators, parents, students and many ordinary cit- izens have told us that they learned a lot from watching the film and want to get involved in supporting public schools. We have gotten over 90 requests for screenings from groups around the country who have contacted us through our website — — just in the past 10 days [at the end of April]. We know that the timing is right for this film, and are thrilled that it is striking a chord with the public. Are you more worried about school privatization now than when you began making Backpack? Yes and no. There is a tipping point where competition from private-sector "options" starts to drain public schools of funding, and then people start to lose trust in them. I feel that many cities are approaching that point. If the current administration in Washington makes good on its promise to back privat- ization with federal dollars, that could accelerate the trend. On the other hand, the public is aware of the issue and people are energized right now, so that gives me hope. How can members of the public fight back to save public education? There are organizations in every state (and at the national level) advocating for public schools. We are developing a dis- cussion guide for the film which we will distribute to groups doing screenings. It will include links to these organizations so people can get involved. Plus, people can get active in their own schools, speak out, write letters to the editor, blog, support candidates who are pro-public education, or consider running for the school board themselves. We know public schools face huge challenges. But we want to keep the focus on the bigger, complex problems — child poverty, segregation and unequal funding. The question we had when we started this film is still the same: Why dismantle public schools? Why not make them work well for everyone? "Why dismantle public schools? Why not make them work well for everyone?" 43 May / June 2017

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