Documentary Questions Education Status Quo

Published April 16, 2010

Review of “The Cartel,” directed by Bob Bowdon. Moving Pictures Institute, 2009, 90 minutes.

Now playing at film festivals around the country, The Cartel is a powerful and provocative documentary about the sorry state of American education. The film is also available on DVD for a modest donation to the estimable Moving Picture Institute.

Written, directed, and produced by Bob Bowdon, The Cartel explores the many problems of the New Jersey public school system. Bowdon is a reporter and former news anchor in New Jersey, so he is very familiar with state laws and politics.

The film has caused quite a stir, prompting attacks from the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) in particular. This highly organized and powerful group of rent-seekers called it “an orchestrated attack against public schools and the New Jersey Education Association.”

But the film has also garnered considerable grassroots audience support, winning “Best of the Festival” at its debut at the 2009 Hoboken International Film Festival.

Unabashedly Pro-School Choice

The film asks the pertinent question, “How has the richest and most innovative society on earth suddenly lost the ability to teach its children at a level that other modern countries consider ‘basic’?” It is unabashed in pointing to school choice—as opposed to endlessly increasing public school funding—as the solution.

The movie starts with well-known political commentators from both right and left saying the American public school system is in crisis. It reviews the dismal performance of American students on international and U.S. tests.

For example, only 23 percent of U.S. high-school students score a “proficient” in math. We fall below two-dozen other countries, including many that are considerably poorer than we are. But we outspend all other countries by far.

The top-spending state is New Jersey, where only 39 percent of eighth graders are proficient in math, and only 40 percent make the grade in reading.

Public Underestimates Spending

Bowdon conducts man-on-the-street interviews revealing average New Jersey residents grossly underestimate the true amount their state spends per classroom. Average folk estimate it at about $80,000; in reality it ranges from $300,000 to nearly $450,000.

Teachers in New Jersey average about $55,000 in annual pay, so the waste incurred by overhead expenses is obviously enormous. Many school custodians earn six-figure incomes. In Newark, more than 400 administrators earn more than $100,000 per year.

At one high school, the school district spent $30 million on an athletic field. One administrator got a $700,000 severance package on top of an annual retirement pension of $120,000. Another fellow received nearly a half million dollars when he was fired.

New Jersey School districts are typically bloated with huge numbers of staff. One grimly amusing part of the movie involves sending the camera to administrators’ parking lots and counting the number of Mercedes, Lexus, and other luxury cars in each.

Busted for Bribes

Corruption is rampant as well. The movie explores the School Construction Corporation, a state outfit established to build schools, and notes $1 billion disappeared shortly after its creation. We see a parade of headlines about endless school corruption, including numerous school board members busted for taking bribes.

The NJEA runs ads boasting how well teachers and schools are doing, but this film rebuts those boasts. One damaging statistic: During a four-year period, only one of 3,850 tenured teachers—0.03 percent!—was fired.

This leads to the funniest moment in the film, an interview with the president of the NJEA, Joyce Powell, in which she smarmily denies her union protects the incompetent. When asked if it was believable that 99.97 percent of all teachers were doing a good job, she says not only is that correct, but it is a fact that should be celebrated.

The film also discusses the extensive patronage job system, where nepotism abounds in a giant, swirling morass of cronyism.

Making Case for Choice

In outlining a potential remedy to all of this waste and poor performance, Bowdon does an outstanding job explaining the voucher system and other forms of school choice such as charter schools. He interviews several articulate proponents of choice, such as Clint Bolick, former president of the Alliance for School Choice; Chester E. Finn, the much-published advocate of school reform; and Gerard Robinson, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

The film also shows how unions have systematically opposed and frustrated school choice. For example, the union-controlled New Jersey Department of Education denied 21 of 22 recent applications for charter schools, including one rejected on transparently flimsy grounds.

The discussion of charter schools provides the most moving part of the film. We witness a lottery in which parents and their children wait to find out whether they are among the lucky few to be liberated from the regular schools by being selected for a charter school. We see the tears of joy and prayers of thanks of those accepted, and the bitter tears of disappointment of those who aren’t.

When you watch the disappointed lottery participants’ faces and compare their expressions with the asinine, complacent smirk on the NJEA president’s face as she says how great the public schools are, you are likely to feel physically ill.

That’s a small price to pay for the valuable information this tremendous film provides. Don’t miss it.

Gary Jason ([email protected]) is a contributing editor to Liberty (, where this review first appeared. Reprinted by permission.