I’m an education reform advocate who recently attended a screening of Backpack Full of Cash at the NAACP Convention. The documentary didn’t change my mind about supporting parent choice, especially high quality public charter schools. Nevertheless, I’m glad I went because the screening helped me understand opposing points of view and gave me hope for finding ways to bridge the gap.
Tough Crowd for an Education Reformer
Backpack Full of Cash is a 2017 documentary that attempts to alert and mobilize audiences against what it terms “privatizing American public schools.” Using Philadelphia as the primary example, the movie follows the financial struggles of traditional public schools as students leave—with their “backpacks full of cash”—for public charter schools and other alternatives. Interviews with school choice leaders like Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform were used for scare effect on viewers who react negatively to terms like “market based” and “accountability.” Allen said she was misled about the purpose of the documentary, and offered a written rejoinder. The movie is narrated by Matt Damon, who has been widely accused of hypocrisy for vocally supporting public schools while sending his own children to private schools and complaining that it’s “unfair.”
The NAACP held its national convention in San Antonio from July 13 to July 18, 2018. On July 14, Julian Vasquez-Heilig, education chair of the California NAACP, teamed up with the San Antonio Alliance for Teachers and Support Personnel for a screening of Backpack Full of Cash and Q&A with director/producer Sarah Mondale. Dr. Vasquez-Heilig is an adamant opponent of all kinds of school choice, including charter schools and vouchers.
An Alliance organizer shared the event in the San Antonio Charter Moms discussion group on Facebook. I decided to go to the screening because I believe in listening to different points of view. Also, I wanted to see which San Antonio people turned out for the screening.
Going to the Screening
On a Saturday afternoon, I parked near La Villita and walked past the Soul Food Festival and Gospel on the Plaza, then around Hemisfair to the Grand Hyatt. San Antonio’s population is only about seven percent African American, so it was a welcome sight to observe so many leaders of color, from teenagers to octogenarians, walking in and around the convention center. I found the screening room, signed in with an email address, and dodged volunteers bringing in more chairs for the capacity crowd. Among the locals, I recognized leaders and staff members of the San Antonio Alliance, as well as faculty from Trinity University. The convention attendees, including NAACP voting members, were identifiable by their badges.
It’s dawning on me that I can’t expect to attend events like this anonymously anymore. Sure enough, the Alliance organizer who posted in the Facebook group recognized me. He welcomed me and mentioned that he had heard me speak on Texas Public Radio’s The Source about charter schools and the Texas education landscape.
Dr. Vasquez-Heilig introduced Mondale. She said she was inspired to make the documentary because she is from a family of teachers and is a former teacher herself. Mondale felt that it was especially appropriate to screen the film at the NAACP convention because of the organization’s historic role in fighting racial segregation in schools. In recent times, the NAACP has staked out its opposition to education reform; in 2016, the NAACP called for a moratorium on new charter schools in 2016, as president Derrick Johnson recently discussed.
Here is the trailer for Backpack Full of Cash:
As I watched the movie, I recognized the same messages that teachers’ unions in the San Antonio area have been communicating to members, parents, and voters. The problems with those messages is that they still present public education as a one-size-fits-all solution. The “experts” and advocates in the movie seem to be asking for more resources without any accountability.
Supporters of traditional public schools are digging in their heels, refusing to see that the old system isn’t working anymore. They are using misleading and even downright false information to try to influence the public. It comes across as trying to protect a bureaucracy rather than doing what is best for students.
However, charter school supporters and advocates need to acknowledge the problems in the sector and look for solutions. There needs to be a greater commitment to serving the neediest students, like English language learners and special education students. Also, high quality schools should be made available to all students by simplifying the application process and offering free transportation. As I wrote in a recent commentary, district-charter partnerships are a good way to solve these problems. But how will institutions learn to work together when there is so much negative rhetoric flying around?
We Are Missing Each Other
The two sides seem to be talking at each other, but referring to different values. School choice advocates talk about the importance of liberty and the power of parents making choices for their own children. Advocates of traditional public schools talk about fairness and taking care of all members of the community. However, when I look at Backpack Full of Cash through the lens of my experience in San Antonio, it seriously underestimates the impact of income and wealth on the current unequal system. Money gives people choices: choice to move to a different neighborhood (i.e., one of 17 local ISDs, with widely varying property values and per-student spending) or to choose private schools, as some local elected officials have opted to do.
Also, there were times when I was surprised by how the San Antonio audience reacted to the film. For example, when narrator Damon described discipline policies at Success Academies, the audience laughed. Were they surprised that a school would have such high expectations for its students’ behavior? I felt ill because it reminded me of the belief gap—how damaging it is when educators have low expectations of students. That’s something my son and I experienced at our neighborhood public school.
After the screening, Mondale and Dr. Vasquez-Heilig engaged in a Q&A with the audience. Among the guests, Alice A. Huffman, president of the California NAACP and a national board member, exhorted the audience that a “charter school system is not the solution.” The NAACP has played an important, historic role in improving educational opportunities for black students by fighting segregation. But do they truly understand the challenges that so many black families are facing now, or are they too beholden to special interests and “the system”?
Hope for Dialogue
After the screening and Q&A, I spoke again with the Alliance organizer who had posted about the event in my Facebook group. We had a good conversation about our personal journeys—how we got to where we are—and we were able to find areas of common ground on issues like fairness and equity. He introduced me to Shelley Potter, president of the San Antonio Alliance, whom I had never formally met before, although she had seen me speak in support of district-charter partnerships, including Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary, at San Antonio ISD board meetings.
I hope to keep the conversation going. Building relationships based on respect and understanding is a good start towards solving problems.
- “San Antonio Schools Are Still Segregated—By Income As Much As Race,” Bekah McNeel, San Antonio Current, July 17, 2018
- “NAACP president tackles charter school question,” Kimberly Hefling, Politico, July 12, 2018
- “Backpack Full of Hypocrisy,” Jeanne Allen, Real Clear Education, October 26, 2017
- “Matt Damon, Harvey Weinstein, and the hunt for good schools,” Erika Sanzi, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, October 13, 2017
- “Is ‘Backpack Full of Cash’ on the money?,” Greg Toppo, USA TODAY, October 5, 2017
- “Matt Damon Chose Private School for His Kids. Great. But Why Is He Making a Film About Denying School Choice to Poor Families?,” Chris Stewart, The 74 Million, October 2, 2017
- “Documentary Backpack Full of Cash Explores School Choice,” Grant Stringer, Westword, September 27, 2017
- “An Open Letter To Matt Damon Who Only Wants School Choice For His Kids – Not Yours,” Alina Adams, New York School Talk, September 20, 2017
- “An Interview with ‘Backpack Full of Cash’ Filmmakers Sarah Mondale and Vera Aronow,” Alexandra Tempus, The Progressive, September 8, 2017
- “California NAACP proposes moratorium on new public charter schools, sparking backlash from other civil rights advocates,” Naomi Nix, LA School Report, August 4, 2016