The School District of Philadelphia’s money struggles are well documented. And now they have their own documentary.
A film opening this weekend focuses on education reforms in the Philly schools, positing that they’ve bankrupted the district.
“Backpack Full of Cash” premieres at the Philadelphia Film Festival Saturday with a 5:10 p.m. showing at the Prince Theater. A second showing is set for Oct. 29.
Narrated by Oscar winner Matt Damon, the film wastes little time revealing its point of view. Damon, a well-documented skeptic of what critics call “corporate” education reform, begins the documentary with an dark warning:
“A battle is underway over who should control public education,” he says. “Parents, teachers and activists are up against a well-organized coalition headed by business leaders and conservatives.”
It’s clear the filmmakers favor the former, arguing the proliferation of charters has infected traditional public schools and brought them to the brink of collapse.
The film serves as a rebuttal to “Waiting for Superman,” the popular documentary that lionized school choice advocates. And, indeed, director and co-producer Sarah Mondale conceived the project after she saw the 2010 film.
“It was a very unbalanced, unfair characterization, and it’s kind of what got me motivated to do this film,” said Mondale. “I wanted to switch the perspective.”
“Backpack Full of Cash” is set in Philadelphia during the 2013-14 school year, which began with major cutbacks and a severe budget shortfall. It features interviews with plenty of familiar faces, including Otis Hackney, head of the mayor’s office of education; district superintendent William Hite; and Councilwoman Helen Gym.
The filmmakers picked Philadelphia over other large urban school districts because they felt it best exemplified the negative consequences of education reform.
It should be noted Philadelphia is now in much better financial shape, and even had a small surplus this year. The district, does, however, anticipate long-term money woes driven by rising charter and pensions costs.