Movie night shines a light on destructive charters

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A row of gangly young boys perch restlessly on the windowsill at the back of a classroom; with 62 students in a ninth-grade biology class, there's nowhere else for them to sit. A boy plays a heartbreaking rendition of "Amazing Grace"; he is at a vigil for a sixth-grader who died of asthma in a school that has no school nurse. And there's a long shot of an empty band room, unused because there is no money for a band teacher.

These are scenes from underfunded public schools in Philadelphia. And then there are the charter schools: the one with a $55 million renovation, and the one that has an in-school ballet studio and Olympic-size swimming pool.

Panelists at movie night

These examples came to life at the AFT's Wednesday night pre-TEACH movie festival screening of "Backpack Full of Cash," a documentary that starkly illustrates the impact of defunding of public schools for the sake of unregulated charters. Using New Orleans and Philadelphia as examples, the film starts at the beginning, when charters were meant to be innovative ways to reach the most needy students, and shows how they've turned into "islands of privilege in a sea of inequity," as AFT ally and Philadelphia City Council member Helen Gym so eloquently put it.

The film shows how some charters cherry-pick students, leaving those with special needs and disciplinary challenges behind. It illustrates exclusive policies such as expensive uniform requirements ($200 blazers) that keep low-income kids from enrolling, English-only applications that keep out children from families that speak other languages, and harsh discipline policies that weed out challenging students (no rolling eyes or sucking teeth). And yet charters perform, on average, no better than public schools.

The film also criticizes vouchers, which funnel taxpayer money into schools that teach creationism and use corporal punishment, and how they essentially pay for a private school education (at places like the Upperroom Bible Church Academy, and at Jewish day schools) on the public's dime. And it describes how, when all this funding is drained away, public schools wind up closing, leaving low-income families with no neighborhood schools.

The AFT plays a central role in the fight against this trend, and you can see the AFT blue shirts at rallies depicted in the film. Filmmakers Sarah Mondale (shown speaking above) and Vera Aronow break down not just the harm charters have brought but also the resistance. They joined AFT President Randi Weingarten and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan in a panel discussion after the screening.

"The story Sarah and Vera have told is a story of how we collectively engage members, engage community and use the ballot box and bargaining tables and courts to save a school system," said Weingarten. The protests and rallies they showed included thousands of students, parents and other Philadelphians eager to save their public school system. At the ballot box, voters chose Helen Gym, a leading public schools activist, to sit on the City Council. In the courts, parents sued the school system for discrimination against children from low-income neighborhoods.

Question during movie night

Some TEACH participants also viewed films screened just before "Backpack Full of Cash," part of the AFT movie night. They had three films from which to choose: "Underwater Dreams" introduced them to innovation and resourcefulness, following the children of Mexican immigrants as they built an underwater robot from Home Depot parts and defeated a powerhouse team from MIT in a robotics competition in the end. "My Love Affair with the Brain" was inspired by Marian Diamond, a brain researcher whose joy in research and learning is contagious. And in "Most Likely to Succeed," they watched one innovative school discard conventional subjects and class periods and instead create an entirely project-based approach to learning.

Such an approach sounds good "in theory," said Rikesha Foster, a teacher and vice president of the Birmingham AFT after watching the movie. "I'd be willing to try it, but I don't believe in hand-picking kids." Besides, her school system lacks the resources. It turns out the school featured was a charter school.

[Virginia Myers]