backpack
(Stone Lantern Films and Turnstone Productions)

“Backpack Full of Cash” is a film title that suggests some untoward money dealings. And a new film by that title is — though the theme is not the traditional movie yarns about arms or drug dealing.

Actually, it’s a 90-minute documentary about the real and ongoing movement to privatize public education and its effects on traditional public schools and the students they enroll. With actor and activist Matt Damon narrating, “Backpack” tells a scary but important story about corporate school reform policies that critics say are aimed at destroying the U.S. public education system, the country’s most important civic institution.

While many Americans have heard of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, often by for-profit companies, and school “vouchers,” which use public money to pay tuition for private schools, they may not understand their central place in the broader corporate reform movement. That movement, which also includes policies such as standardized test-based “accountability” systems, thrived under the administrations of presidents George W. Bush, a Republican, and then Barack Obama, a Democrat. But there are both Republicans and Democrats who oppose corporate reform as well.

“Backpack” — done by Stone Lantern Films, and Turnstone Productions — attempts to explain the entire movement through the prism of the 2013-2014 school year. The best way to understand what is happening is by looking at how corporate reform affects schools, teachers and children, and that’s what the film attempts to do. Here’s a description of the film, from its Kickstarter website:

BACKPACK takes viewers to Philadelphia, where in 2013-14, the charismatic principal of South Philadelphia High worries about the upcoming school year — his school has no music teacher, no librarian, and just two counselors for over 1,000 students. Across town, the C.O.O. of a brand new charter school welcomes students to gleaming, high tech classrooms.

In North Philly, a 10th-grader performs a virtual frog dissection on her computer, in her bedroom. Her cyber charter school is run by the biggest for-profit online education company in the world.

In Nashville, TN, a teacher is giving standardized tests to her eight-year-old students. This is their 30th Test Day of the year. Testing companies reap huge dividends.

And in Louisiana, a Bible school headmaster teaches creationism to students who pay tuition with tax-funded vouchers.

The description also notes that the term “backpack full of cash” refers to the belief by corporate reformers that every child should be allowed to take their share of public education dollars — their “backpack full of cash” — to any school they want, charter, religious, online or public. (The problems with such a system are many: Public money shouldn’t be used for religious purposes; traditional school systems, which educate the vast majority of students, need dependable budgets to properly operate; and the public has little or no oversight over private, religious and charter schools.) The title could equally refer to the billions of dollars that private philanthropists have spent in recent years to privatize the public education system through pet projects that have no research to back up their effectiveness.

“Backpack” was directed and co-produced by Sarah Mondale, president and co-director of Stone Lantern who is also a public school teacher in New York. She directed and co-produced the 2001 four-part series titled “School” — and she was nominated for an Emmy for her direction of “Asylum: A History of the Mental Institutions in America.” The film makers are seeking funding via a Kickstarter campaign to complete final work on the film and distribute and promote it.

The film makers got Damon, who has been vocal about the importance of public education for years, to narrate it. In an email, Damon explained why he agreed:

“I got involved in the making of ‘Backpack Full of Cash’ because it tells the important story of how current education reform policies are increasing inequality and causing harm to our most vulnerable children.

The expansion of charter schools is draining funds from our public schools and benefiting some children while leaving others behind with fewer resources. We need a public school system that gives every child an equal chance to a great education.

I had that chance in the public schools I attended and I want to see it given — fairly and on an even playing field — to every child in our nation.

“Backpack Full of Cash” helps us realize that true education equity will come when we address the deeper issues underlying education inequality such as child poverty, racial segregation, and the unequal funding of our schools.”

Supporters of the  privatization of public education say that outsourcing school management and running public schools like businesses is more efficient than allowing government to do the job. Critics say civic institutions can’t be properly run like businesses in part because children aren’t widgets.

According to Samuel E. Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, whose recent book, “Education and the Commercial Mindset,” details how and why market forces have become important in corporate school reform:

… where there is insufficient transparency for proper contract enforcement, the free market fails. Laissez-faire enthusiasts neglected to differentiate discrete (that is, easily measurable) from complex services. In the case of schooling, which is a classic complex service, the direct consumer is a child, who is in little position to judge whether classes are being properly taught. The parent, taxpayer and legislator are at a necessary distance. And standardized testing as a check on quality is rife with problems. It isn’t merely that teachers and principals under tremendous pressure to raise test scores can correct wrong answers on bubble sheets, as documented in Atlanta most notably, but they can also give students more time to complete tests and lend help in the process. More fundamentally, heavy reliance on standardized testing leads to teaching to the test, which means crowding out instruction in subjects that aren’t tested, particularly art, music, crafts and play, which are fundamental to a well-rounded education.

Damon’s involvement is the latest in a string of education-related activities. In March 2011, he said during a television interview that President Obama’s standardized test-based school reform policies had disappointed him. Two months later, Obama took a shot at Damon in a comic address to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, saying:

“I’ve even let down my key core constituency: movie stars. Just the other day, Matt Damon — I love Matt Damon, love the guy — Matt Damon said he was disappointed in my performance. Well, Matt, I just saw ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ so . . . right back atcha, buddy.”

Then in July of the same year, Damon came to Washington and delivered a speech at the Save Our Schools rally where teachers, parents and others protested the Obama administration’s standardized test-based school reform policies. Damon came at the request of his mother, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a well-known child development expert and professor emeritus at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., who was involved with the rally.

The administration at the time was concerned enough about his speech to attempt to arrange a meeting, with then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan offering to meet Damon at the airport and talk to him on the drive into the city, according to sources at the time. Damon refused.

In 2014, Damon had an online conversation with fans on Reddit and among the subjects he discussed was his opposition to standardized test-based school reform and the exclusion of teachers from the shaping of education policy.

And now, he has narrated “Backpack Full of Cash.”

“This has been a horrible decade for teachers,” actor Matt Damon said at a 2011 rally in Washington. (Tracy A Woodward/The Washington Post