When School “Choice” Is a Bad Choice

09/11/2017 03:18 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2017

“Backpack Full of Cash” is a new feature-length documentary, directed by Sarah Mondale, a daughter of two teachers and a former teacher-come-filmmaker. It is her answer to the education “reform” movement –the privatizing of education that is fueled by the profit motive by very wealthy people who call themselves education “reformers.” The American public-school system is one of the pillars of our democracy, which depends on an educated electorate. It is funded by taxpayers—state, local and, for the past 15 years, federal governments. The money is allocated according to the number of children in each district that it is mandated to educate. Thus, each child enrolled in a public school is worth an assigned amount of cash. If parents opt to send a child to a private school, that’s fine, their taxes still go towards public education because public education is also seen as a public good. Its mission is to provide education for all children, including children with English as a second language, children with learning challenges, and children with physical disabilities. It is also supposed to level the playing field between rich and poor, thus putting the American dream within everyone’s grasp.

“Backpack Full of Cash” documents what happened to the public-school system of Philadelphia during the school year of 2014. At a time when public schools were hit by a fiscal crisis, “reformers” in Philly offered a menu of alternative choices to parents, with some charter schools employing aggressive marketing, using the word “choice” as a euphemism for “better” and underplaying the ramifications of parents’ decisions on both their child’s education and the public schools. The outcome was not what was promised. And Philadelphia is not an atypical example of other parts of the country where privatizing of public schools has a grip.

In a nutshell, the film graphically shows how the “reformers” siphoned off taxpayer resources from public education. “Backpack Full of Cash” exposes the “reformers” erroneous propaganda by following the money.

· In 2002, George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind law that introduced extensive testing into every grade of the public school. Federal money was supposed to fund this. Ka-ching! Test -creating companies make a bonanza. Teachers are now to be evaluated by how their students perform on the tests. Teaching to the tests becomes entrenched in public-school classrooms, creating school days of skill and drill, narrowing the curriculum and decreasing the morale and increasing the attrition of good teachers.

· Race to the Top was the Obama administration’s compounding of the aims of the “reformers” by using money as a carrot for states to implement “reformers” missions: Standardized curriculum, standardized testing, more technology to cut costs (mostly teachers) and closing neighborhood public schools deemed to be “failing.”

· The founding of charter schools with no accountability to the taxpayer but promising all kinds of goodies to enrollees (by lottery) except for children with disabilities (not enough money to provide for them) prompted an exodus from the public schools and the backpacks of cash that went with it. While there are some charter schools that fulfill a mission of high achievement, most don’t do any better than public school and some do worse. Plus, the lack of accountability as to the allocation of funding offered an opportunity for corruption. Every time money changes hands, there an opportunity for someone’s pockets to get lined.

· A voucher system that allows the money for a child to follow the child to a private school, including religious schools. Thus, public money is now sent to religious institutions—a clear violation of the separation of church and state. In many places, these vouchers are euphemistically called “scholarships.”

The goal of the “reformers” and our current Secretary of Education is the privatizing of public schools where the data (as for most privately held businesses) is the bottom line. The evaluation of the quality of education cannot be reduced to simplistic numbers, including the testing. I, particularly, resented the “reformers” calling public schools a government “monopoly.” Public schools are run by local boards of education, elected officials accountable to their local public. At a time when the future of work will demand innovators, highly-skilled medical workers, and, yes, teachers with knowledge of best practices in education and humanity, the “reformers” are looking to “standardize” education to their own world views. Children are NOT widgets.

“Backpack Full of Cash” is tough to take, even when you know the story, because film shows how real people are affected by these policies. Thus, it has real impact. But I found a new ray of hope in the film with their documented success of the Union City school district of Union City, NJ. Here, parents didn’t buy “choice” but bought into making their public schools better. It is a model for hope.

The producers of “Backpack Full of Cash” are launching a community screening campaign. If you care about investing in this country, it’s a must-see.

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