The Florida League of Women Voters is taking time during the month of September to advocate for the importance of public schools and the need for adequate funding to support them. As part of this effort, the Pensacola Bay Area chapter is hosting a screening and discussion of the documentary Backpack Full of Cash.
“Our children have a backpack full of cash and the schools should vie for the privilege of having that backpack turned over to them,” says one of the participants in the documentary in the film’s trailer.
Others chime in, “The district’s money is being shifted to charter schools. They’ve become aggressive and entrepreneurial. How is it possible to cut anymore? This is serious. The public just doesn’t understand that their public schools are being taken away. It was about privatizing, not improving public education.”
“Backpack Full of Cash has to do with the amount of money that’s given to each student from the state, and, of course, that’s how we’re set up as an educational system,” said Melinda Beckett, co-chair of the education committee of the Pensacola Bay Area League of Women Voters, which is bringing the film to the area. “We want the viewers to see what is happening to traditional public education, what’s happening to our resources.”
Beckett has an extensive educational background. She taught AP World History in the IB program at Pensacola High School, coordinated the Old Hometown program for the Escambia School District, and taught at Florida Virtual School.
She says Backpack Full of Cash is a true story of the struggle of three metro areas to pay for public education, and what happened when the charter schools that were set up in response, failed.
“You see what’s going on in the families and you see the types of students that are being affected with this,” Beckett said. “It affects everybody. It affects the teachers, the families themselves, the neighborhoods, the communities; and the main one they concentrate on is in Pennsylvania.”
“In Philadelphia, in particular, there’s one very sad scene where what was formerly the band room is a big empty room with a few instruments lying around,” adds Paula Montgomery, who also co-chairs the local League’s education committee.
The school’s band room was empty because money was taken out of the public education system that would have supported having a band. The school also lost its football team.
“There’s just no money for those kinds of things because money is being siphoned off from the system and into private pockets,” Montgomery said.
Nationally, for profit charter schools present the most significant threat to public education funding. While charter schools in Florida reportedly are “not for profit,” the rub is that they’re run by for-profit management companies, whose books are closed to public scrutiny.
The League is seeking more oversight and accountability.
“There have been in Florida, people who got permission to set up a charter, and once they set it up and got everything set and enrolled some students and then they closed their doors and took the money that was to come with the students,” Montgomery said. “And, when the schools didn’t happen, the students were back in the public schools, but their backpacks were empty.”
In such situations, the public schools are mandated to take the students, even without their per pupil funds. Additionally, Montgomery claims public schools face unfair competition for state dollars when charter schools can select the best students, who don’t need extra academic help or have any physical disabilities.
Then, there’s the role of state lawmakers. According to the League, many of Florida’s current legislators, who make the rules regarding the education budget, have financial ties to charter school management companies
“Our problem with the legislature too is they want to have more control of all the charter schools,” proclaimed Montgomery, referencing Florida’s proposed constitutional Amendment 8, which would have given the state total control over a new charter school system.
However, the Florida Supreme Court officially struck the amendment from the November ballot in a September 7 ruling.
It was a victory for the League, which filed the legal challenge and took time to learn more about the issue by conducting a comprehensive study of charter schools in Florida a few years ago.
Montgomery says the results were not all bad, particularly here in the Northwest Florida, where there are fewer charter schools and few dollars available than in the southern part of the state.
“But, our charter schools, some of them are quite good,” she said.
Case in point is Pensacola Beach Elementary charter school.
On the other end of the spectrum is Ohio-based Newpoint Education Partners. Company owner Marcus May is currently on trial for racketeering and fraud charges for allegedly stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funding from the three charter schools he once operated in Escambia County and elsewhere across the state.
“If the charters were doing better, this whole situation would be different,” according to Beckett, who once served on the board of the Newpoint charter schools in Pensacola. She declined to comment on Newpoint due to the ongoing trial.
However, even with her own extensive educational background she says the documentary Backpack Full of Cash was eye-opening and she thinks local residents should see it.
“I’ve taught for a long time there in the classroom. I’ve voted, paid my taxes and it really gave me something to think about,” Beckett said. “Not everybody has all the answers, but I think it would be very helpful, especially during this season of voting and so forth and I just think it would be a good thing to see.”
The showing of Backpack Full of Cash is set for Monday, September 24, 6 p.m. at Washington High School.
The documentary will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Escambia School Board member Patty Hightower, Vickie Mathis, director of alternative education in Escambia, representatives from the Santa Rosa School District and members of the Florida Education Association.