Have You Seen Backpack Full of Cash? You Should.

On Wednesday, January 24, 2018, I attended the North Florida premier of “Backpack Full of Cash” at Leon High School in Tallahassee. “Backpack” is a feature-length documentary exploring the growing privatization of public schools and the resulting impact on America’s most vulnerable children. The film screening was sponsored by Common Ground (@commongroundED), a grass roots, bipartisan education advocacy group, with which I actively participate. Common Ground chose to show this film during National School Choice Week to highlight the impacts of “School Choice” on our public school system and our most vulnerable children. Our intent was to start a community conversation regarding these issues.

Before the film even began, Patricia Levesque, the CEO of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future, was encouraging Tallahassee alumni to contact Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna, Leon High School Principal Billy Epting and local school board members to voice the Foundation’s concerns. Per an email from Ms. Levesque, “The movie is an attack on everything the Foundation stands for relating to empowering families to make the best decisions for their own child’s education.”

Despite Ms. Levesque’s concerns, the film went on as scheduled, with Superintendent Hanna, Principal Epting and at least one Leon County School Board member present. Following the film, the audience was included in a general discussion regarding school choice and privatization.

The documentary explores the negative effects of so-called “education reform” on traditional public schools. Though the film focuses on public schools in New Orleans, Philadelphia and other parts of the Northeast, similar “reforms” are decimating public education in Florida. While watching the film, I kept track of the impacts I see occurring in Florida today:

  • Charter Schools
  • Vouchers or Tax Credit Scholarships, often to religious schools
  • Voucher funded religion based curriculum suggesting humans and dinosaur co-habited the earth (read more about the ACE Curriculum here)
  • Outside money influencing local elections (read more here)
  • Loss of local control of public education dollars
  • Test based education reforms, including using student test scores to evaluate teachers
  • “Poor kids get a joyless, test prep education.” (read more here)
  • Classroom stress levels have skyrocketed
  • Weakening of teachers union
  • Growth of profitable Cyber/Virtual Schools
  • Effects of child poverty on test scores and, in Florida, school grades
  • Schools without music, art, nurses and/or counsellors
  • When adjusted for inflation, public schools funding remains below pre-recession levels.

The film also exposes the dramatic funding differences across school districts in Pennsylvania, where inner city school districts are funded at a fraction of their wealthy, suburban counterparts. Such contrasts are not so dramatic in Florida where the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) strives to ensure the same per pupil funding across districts in Florida, leaving all schools underfunded (learn more here). Florida’s education funding remains one of the lowest in the country (the FLDOE prides itself in being “efficient“), with inflation adjusted per pupil spending being nearly $1,000 less per student than it was nearly 2 decades ago. Inequities within districts, however, remain apparent, when it comes to resources, programs and facilities; in many districts, wealthier neighborhoods, with more parental resources benefitting the classrooms, continue to have better resourced schools than their lower income neighbors.

The film compares the struggles of underfunded South Philadelphia High School to the success of an urban, low income high school in Union City, New Jersey where, instead of encouraging “choice” through charters and vouchers, the community focused on building a good urban public school system. The Union City district has seen remarkable results, lowering the achievement gap following the implementation of research-based programs throughout district schools (programs such as universal high-quality pre-K, smaller class sizes, and a focus on early literacy). In Florida, Evans High School, a public school in Orange County, is seeing good results using a “Community School” model. Such models empower students and strengthen communities, without privatization of community resources.

“Backpack Full of Cash” has a strong point of view, which made it an effective way to stimulate real conversation about this important issue. After the film screening at Leon High, the audience was able to engage in a real conversation about choice and privatization. Leon Superintendent Hanna, warned privatization efforts in Florida placed Leon High School at risk of suffering the same fate as South Philadelphia High School, which lost music, arts and other vital programs. Hanna applauded Common Ground’s efforts to start a conversation and encouraged the community to stand up for public education.

Two days later (1/26/18), the Education Subcommittee of Florida Constitution Revision Commission met to hear proposed constitutional amendments that would further the school choice/privatization agenda, expanding school choice, allowing direct funding of private religious schools and the conversion of entire school districts to charter schools (read more here). Common Ground was present, testifying on Proposals 4, 10, 45, 71, 82 and 93. Also testifying was Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna, who encouraged the entire FLCRC Education Committee (including Foundation for Florida’s Future’s, Ms. Levesque) to watch “Backpack Full of Cash” before voting on any of these proposals.

Thank you, Mr. Hanna for continuing the conversation.

We encourage everyone to find a “Backpack Full of Cash” screening near you or schedule a screening in your community. The League of Women Voters of St. Petersburg and North Pinellas will be screening the film on 2/27/18 at Allendale UMC (more info here). This is a conversation worth having across the state.


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