Film and TV

Documentary Backpack Full of Cash Explores School Choice

Sarah Mondale.
Sarah Mondale. Courtesy of Stone Lantern Films
New York-based filmmaker Sarah Mondale is no stranger to education. As a teacher, she's spent years seeing firsthand what makes public schools in the United States tick. And as a filmmaker, she's devoted much of her career to two documentaries exploring America's public schools. The latest, Backpack Full of Cash, which premiered late last year, takes viewers inside public school systems on the East Coast to examine how the pivot toward "school choice" initiatives like charter schools and voucher programs impact the education system as a whole. In advance of a film screening tonight, Wednesday, September 27, at 7 p.m. at the Sie FilmCenter, Westword spoke with Mondale about the project's motivations and lessons.

Westword: Your family history is intertwined with public education. How does that inspire your work?

Sarah Mondale: My father was an American Studies professor. I come from a family of teachers. My mother taught English as a Second Language to adult students in the D.C. public schools, my grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Minnesota, I believe, and I was a teacher myself. And I had grown up with my father, who was from rural Minnesota originally, telling us kids that public schools were a pillar of American democracy.

And you’ve filmed education documentaries before?

I worked on a series called School: The Story of American Public Education that aired on PBS in 2001, and it was about the history of the democratic promise of public schools. It was narrated by Meryl Streep.

What are you seeing in education that pushed you into this project?

I’ve been a filmmaker all of my adult life, but I went into teaching after the PBS series aired and taught for about seven years. And after it aired, I began hearing this narrative that the public school system is broken, American public schools are failing, they are way below schools in other countries, and we need to get rid of this system and try something else – which means turning the schools over to the private sector in the form of charter schools [which are public schools that are privately run], vouchers to religious schools and private schools, and cyber-charter schools.

So the film explores privatization of the school system. But to be fair, public education isn't a perfect system.

While public schools do face challenges, especially in areas where there are large numbers of poor kids who are being educated, by and large the system is successful. I’m not downplaying the challenges that we face – we have to make public schools better – but the issue in this country is not that public schools are failing; they are unequal. We don’t want to throw away the school system that we have.

I saw this film called Waiting for Superman, which I felt to be kind of a propaganda piece about how charter schools have been a positive force in the lives of some children. And that’s true, I’m not denying that, but I felt what I wanted to look at was really, what is the impact of these programs on the kids in the public schools? We wanted to flip the perspective, and that was the goal of the film.

What is the "backpack full of cash?"

The idea of [charter-school advocates] is individual market-based choice – that you should be able to take money from the government and go shop for a school. Schools are not a consumer good like restaurants or supermarkets; they’re civic institutions. Once you reduce schooling to a mere “backpack full of cash,” this is draining and undermining public schools.

In the film, you explore change in Philadelphia’s school system. What did you find there?

They have so many charter schools and so much “choice” that you can feel the impacts already. And not just because of school choice – they had funding problems and funding issues, like state money that was drastically cut – but school choice certainly contributed to that. So we profiled students who have very high needs, who were English learners, and kids with disabilities or in extreme poverty, and who need those schools.

Colorado is sympathetic to charter schools – we have almost 240 in the state, up 30 percent from 2013 ago. And last May, Governor Hickenlooper signed into law equal funding for charter schools and traditional public schools. Based on the lessons of your film, how will that impact our school systems?

This is happening all over the country. And this country is already so unequal in funding public schools. We want people to see that the charter system skims off the kids with the fewest needs; all the kids with the greatest needs end up in the public school system. And public schools become the schools of last resort. Is that what we want as a society?

Education reform is a hot national topic right now, with Betsy DeVos – a longtime advocate of school-choice systems like charter schools and vouchers – heading the Department of Education. How has the film been received?

We could not have imagined that Betsy DeVos would be appointed Secretary of Education when we made the film. We started in 2011, so we were stunned, like many people. But a lot of people are suddenly aware of this issue. It made our film very timely.

The people who are screening the film are getting a flood of screening requests, all over the country and all over the world. These are mostly parents’ groups, with some retired teachers and some students. We’ve been impressed going around the country to show the film to these people – it’s like a movement out there. Full houses in lots of places where we’ve shown it.

What are the merits of using film to explore education?

I feel that it’s a great way to reach people and to tell stories about real people. I’m glad to see that it is having an impact.

And the film is narrated by Matt Damon? How did he get involved?

His mother is a professor of early childhood education, so she is an outspoken advocate and is very much a supporter of public schools. Matt went to public schools in Boston and the same school as Ben and Casey Affleck.

Wow, that's like a real-life Good Will Hunting.

Yeah, it's amazing. But he was crediting his teachers with really helping him be the person he is. It's actually through his mother that we got in touch with him. And he knows a lot about the issue as well. We all need to. I hope that things turn around.

Backpack Full of Cash, 7 p.m. Wednesday, September 27, Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax Avenue.
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Grant Stringer has covered everything from high-powered energy politics at the Capitol to reproductive rights and homelessness. He can typically be found running to press conferences in the heat of the summer while playing Fugazi and Ty Segall songs as loud as is humanly possible.
Contact: Grant Stringer