“Did you know that you were in the trailer for Backpack Full of Cash? Sounds like you actually coined the phrase.”
That was the email that started the little spat I’m currently having with Matt Damon and the producers of a film that mischaracterizes the motives behind education reform. That’s the term most often used to characterize policies that give parents the opportunity to make choices governing the education of their kids, across public, private and other types of schooling arrangements.
After seeing the clip myself, I wrote the producers. I argued that they took my words out of context, deliberately it would seem, to make a point that was not the stated focus for the interview, which they denied. I had been invited to participate in a film about education reform, in general. The interview was intended to frame the debate, where it has been, where it’s going. Later, Sarah Mondale, the head of StoneLantern Films whose uncle served alongside President Carter, admitted to USA Today they changed the narrative surrounding our interview. “We sharpened our point of view — it does have a perspective now that [Allen] probably would not agree with.”
Controversy in this work is to be expected, but when filmmakers create a false narrative in an attempt to bolster failing schools — and don’t acknowledge that the unions were probably their biggest funding source — it’s despicable.
They declined to provide the interview’s raw footage and a copy of the film. A private screening was eventually scheduled for two weeks hence. It’s been confirmed that the documentary treats educational choice as the villain, and the heroic traditional public-education system as a victim of money-grubbing choice advocates.
It’s still hard to believe anyone really considers giving parents the power to control their kids’ education to be controversial. Many across the ideological spectrum are maligned daily by those whose power is lost when parents gain. AFT boss Randi Weingarten told the Hollywood Reporter this week in its coverage of the controversy that we “all want to discriminate and … want to do so with public dollars.” Never mind that the earliest and biggest education- reform breakthroughs, circa 1990, were the result of 1) an African-American lawmaker and avowed black panther from Wisconsin and 2) a Democratic Farm Labor Party governor from Minnesota).
Mondale, Weingarten and Diane Ravitch — whose about face on school reform tracks with her relationship with a union leader — were all part of the 2011 union-organized SOS march in Washington, DC, with a pep talk by Matt Damon.
They unabashedly oppose any effort that makes teacher, student or school performance the driver of decision-making. For his part, Damon doesn’t seem to have any education policy background. On the documentary website, he said he’s for this cause because his mother is a teacher. And? My husband is a teacher, as is my son, my in-laws and hundreds of friends. What does that have do with maligning opportunities for poor families?
Was he duped? Does he really believe that giving every child a proverbial backpack full of cash that schools only receive when parents choose to hand it over is a bad thing? “Sending our kids … to private school was a big, big, big deal,” he told the Guardian. “And it was a giant family discussion. But it was a circular conversation, really, because ultimately, we don’t have a choice. I mean, I pay for a private education and I’m trying to get the one that most matches the public education that I had, but that kind of progressive education no longer exists in the public system. It’s unfair.”
Jeanne Allen is an entrepreneur, an innovator, and a leader. Her entire career has been devoted to education reform, and, as a result, she is the most recognized and respected expert, thought leader, speaker, and writer in the field. She founded the Center for Education Reform in 1993 and leads the nationwide fight to ensure that the bedrock of U.S. schooling is innovation, freedom and flexibility. She’s active on Twitter, at @JeanneAllen.