Thursday, June 23, 2022
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Backpack Full of Cash: Documentary raises questions about privatizing education


UMKC community members gathered at Trinity Methodist Church last week for a special screening of the new education documentary, Backpack Full of Cash. After the screening, a panel of educators and community leaders led a discussion panel to take questions from the audience.

Backpack Full of Cash delves into the rise of charter schools and privatization of education and how these phenomena are affecting public education. The documentary follows several school districts across the country for the 2013-2014 school year, taking a closer look at how charter schools and education reform policies affect the students who must live with the consequences of state and school district decisions.

Charter schools are educational institutions that are funded by the public. They must follow the terms for a charter set by their local or national governments. Students often gain admission or access to a charter school through a “lottery” in which they receive vouchers to pay for their attendance to a particular charter school.

There is a wide debate around the effectiveness and cost of charter schools. Supporters of Charters argue that these privatized institutions are of higher quality and achieve better results for students. However, in an evaluation of reading performance, 56 percent of charter schools achieved no significant difference than their public counterparts.

Many opponents argue that funds that go to charter schools, which are often discriminatory in their acceptance practices, take away from resources that should go to public schools, which must accept and educate all students.

The very name of the documentary, Backpack Full of Cash, refers to the allocated money that each student has. When there is a rise in charter schools, especially in school districts that are already poorly funded, these charter schools siphon students away from the public schools. When a student leaves, they take their “backpack full of cash” with them. However, the student’s original school district must continue to pay for the same operational and funding costs. This is one reason why there is so much debate surrounding charters and public schools: charters take away needed funds from public education.

The School District of Philadelphia is one district that has dealt with the costs of the surging in privatizing education, according to the film.

Prior to and during the 2013-2014 school year which the documentary covers, the School District of Philadelphia experienced numerous school closings due to budget cuts. In March of 2013, the school board decided to close 23 of the district’s public schools. Students who attended the closed schools were required to transfer to different schools the following academic year.

There is a correlation between the school closings and charter schools. In 2011-2012, charter school attendance in Philadelphia rose from 12% to 23% in a few short years.

The film was followed by a panel consisting of several women with years of public education and policy experience.

Katina Taylor of the DREAMS KC summer school said that while she enjoyed the film overall, she wished that it was more critical of the root causes of the issues in public education.

“Until we look at the root causes, we’ll continue to experience this [inequity],” she said.

“How many of your family and friends are moving back into the school district to re-establish the tax base? I’m sure a good portion of the people in this room are middle class.” said Cecilia Belser-Patton, co-founder of the education equity consultant film JUST Systems, in response to a question of what actions people can take to help solve the problem. In this statement, she is referring to the phenomena of Sprawl and White Flight, which often leaves inner cities without a sufficient tax base.

While the film covers events from several years ago, its relevancy continues to this day. The United States’ secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is a supporter of school choice and charter schools. Education for all is a guarantee under the American constitution and the privatization of education is what many would argue is a breach of civil rights.

To find a screening of the documentary near you, visit

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