Backpack Full of Cash: New Documentary Narrated by Matt Damon Explores School Privatization

By Barbara Miner

Like many supporters of public education, Sarah Mondale and Vera Aronow had become increasingly concerned in the last decade about the attacks on public schools and teachers.

They decided to do something about it.

The result, five years in the making, is their recently released documentary, Backpack Full of Cash.

“Everyone who values democratic education needs to see this,” Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities and other education books, says of the film.

Narrated by Matt Damon, the feature-length film explores the growing privatization of this country’s public schools, especially in urban districts serving predominantly students of color, and how such privatization starves public schools of needed resources. Filmed in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Nashville, and other cities in 2013–14, the film focuses primarily on the effect of privately run charter schools and, in New Orleans, publicly funded vouchers for private religious schools. It also touches on issues such as the obsession with standardized test scores and attacks on teacher unions.

Rethinking Schools supporter and public education advocate Matt Damon narrates Backpack Full of Cash.

The film has been shown at festivals and screenings across the country. You can check its website for information for screenings in your area, or to host a screening.

Sarah Mondale, the film’s director/producer, and Vera Aronow, the editor/producer, explain that they both grew up “with a deep respect for public education — we were taught that it was a cornerstone of American democracy, on par with the Declaration of Independence.”

Mondale is a former public school teacher in New York. Her grandmother was a music teacher who taught for a time in a one-room schoolhouse, her mother taught English to adult immigrants, and her father was a historian. “Just look at the Northwest Ordinance,” Mondale remembers him saying. “When we were barely even a country, all the new states had to set aside land for public universities and ‘forever encourage schools.’”

Aronow, meanwhile, grew up in the Philadelphia metro area, where she remembers “so many family members involved in public schools it was hard to keep track of them all — nurses, librarians, teachers and, of course, students.”

Director Sarah Mondale, Cinematographer Roger Grange, and Co-Producer/Editor Vera Aronow.

With the U.S. Education Department now headed by billionaire privatizer Betsy DeVos, Aronow and Mondale worry that public education may be at a tipping point. They view the movie as a way to increase public awareness and help build the movement in support of fully funded, equitable public schools.

“Now is the time to join the movement to stop privatization and strengthen public schools,” they note on the film’s website.

Rethinking Schools, in conjunction with Aronow and Mondale and with support from the Schott Foundation for Public Education, has developed a downloadable 24-page discussion guide for the film. In addition to discussion questions, the guide includes background information, a list of resources, and a special section on “Frequently Asked Questions: Charters, Vouchers, and Public Schools.” The Frequently Asked Questions addresses common confusions about the causes and effects of privatization, and can be downloaded as a stand-alone document. The entire guide and stand-alone FAQ are available here.

Boris Zhinin’s first day at a new school in Philadelphia in 2013.

Mondale is president and co-director of Stone Lantern Films. Among her work, she directed and co-produced the 2001 award-winning PBS series School: The Story of American Public Education, and the PBS prime-time films Marcel Proust and Asylum, which was nominated for an Emmy.

Aronow founded Turnstone Productions with her husband, cinematographer, Roger Grange in 1996. Her recent work includes co-directing, co-producing and editing the documentary feature, MEGAMALL (2010) about suburban development in the age of sprawl. She also served as researcher, associate producer, and line producer on numerous documentaries for PBS.

Barbara Miner has been a reporter, writer, and editor for almost 40 years, for publications ranging from the New York Times to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Miner coordinated the discussion guide for Backpack Full of Cash.