Imagine you are Jeanne Allen—who joined me recently on “Common Ground”—and you’re a longtime educational reformer, and you’ve coined this phrase, “backpacks full of cash.”
And the phrase is catching on because it truly captures an exciting idea in American education—the notion that, instead of appropriating giant sums to school systems, we, in effect, give each child a backpack full of cash to spend on education as their parents see fit.
The money in the backpack goes to the school the parents choose. If public schools performed well, parents could send their students—and the accompanying backpacks full of cash—to them.
If private or public charter or specialized or virtual or home school environments best suited students’ interests, the money would go to them.
Imagine how excited she must have been when producers putting together an education documentary five years ago contacted her about the phrase and its meaning.
Finally, imagine what it must feel like to be Allen now. That film is now being released, and rather than a balanced treatment of a variety of approaches, it is a hatchet job on her idea.
The trailer makes this clear, opening with a succession of speakers from the film.
“This ‘backpack full of cash’ is about privatizing, not improving, public education,” says one. “It’s an opportunity on islands of privilege amidst a sea of inequity,” says another. “There is no high-quality research that shows that this is a good method of teaching and learning,” says a third.
Better, they say, to spend more on public schools.
Not only that, but Matt Damon, whom she used to really like, is the narrator.
Damon isn’t telling us his story of his public school experience—a high-income public school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a favorite with people from Harvard.
Not surprisingly, he can’t seem to find this experience today in California and sends his own kids to private schools. It sounds like he thinks that the rest of us just need to work a little harder and spend much more on our public schools as they stand.
That’s the part that gets to Johnny Taylor, CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, who joined Allen and me on the show. He should know, his fund helps 300,000 African-American students go to college every year.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, test—widely regarded as the nation’s report card—found last year that two-thirds of American kids are not grade-level proficient in any subject. Not math. Not civics. Not reading, history, or geography.
Among immigrants and minorities, the numbers are even worse. In the D.C. school system, which has the second-highest per-student expenditure in the country, only 17 percent of black, brown, and Latino eighth-graders were doing math or English on grade level.
That’s 1 in 6, which is about the rate nationwide for minority student achievement.
Taylor draws on his experience working for media innovator Barry Diller. Taylor explains, “Education is an industry that refuses to innovate. And that’s my rub. Let’s not pretend that all of our public schools are working wonderfully. Why can’t we want to be better?”
But we have an educational establishment—with Damon as its spokesman—that seems more concerned with preserving teachers unions’ prerogatives than improving schools.
Allen says she believes Damon is educable on this.
So let’s try a thought experiment that might persuade him. What if Hollywood were run like schools? Wouldn’t that mean a monopoly with a central studio that controlled all movie making?
Would Damon be OK with making the same amount of money per picture as the worst actors in Hollywood, the way the worst and best teachers are paid the same?
Would there be color or even sound in movies? Both were expensive gambles taken by smaller studios to give them a competitive edge over larger rivals.
It’s not that everything is broken in public schools. It’s that, if two-thirds of America’s kids are not proficient in any subject, we can’t be closed to attempts at innovation.
And we can’t let Damon or Hollywood or teachers unions stand in the way.