A documentary film detailing corruption in New Jersey’s schools and showing the need for school choice in the state is impressing critics at film festivals statewide—and bringing heat on the filmmaker from the state’s teacher unions.
The Cartel (http://www.TheCartelMovie.com) is the self-financed brainchild of first-time documentarian Bob Bowdon, a Hoboken resident and former anchorman for Bloomberg TV. After its release in early summer, the film won the Audience Choice Award at the Hoboken Film Festival on May 29 and Best Documentary at the Jersey Shore Film Festival in mid-July. Another screening is scheduled at Rutgers University in September.
“This project has been in the works about two-and-a-half years,” said Bowdon. He first got the idea for the film while reporting on education at Bloomberg. “I hosted some talk shows about education, and discovered this term ‘tenure,’ which sounded like something from a Third World country—like some ruling dictator could never be fired the rest of their lives. But it’s here, and it applies to teachers. That was the initial experience.
“I did some stories on education in New Jersey, where the teachers union crushed closed-circuit TV lessons,” Bowdon said. “The trial [period] went great, the students and teachers loved it, and the union just passed a rule that said they couldn’t have anything to do with it. It was such a clear case of them selecting the union’s interest over kids. The other thing was I had a friend who got a job as a teacher at an urban high school, and I started hearing her stories. That’s when it clicked for me it could be a documentary.”
Representatives from education reform groups such as Excellent Education for Everyone (E3) in New Jersey appear in the film. They hope it will serve as a wake-up call for policymakers and taxpayers alike.
“New Jersey is typified by excesses at every level. When something is good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad, it’s horrible,” said E3 Deputy Director Derrell Bradford. “What the movie does is take an unflinching view at what goes on in our schools. We can’t even decide we want to be serious about fixing anything in public education until we decide we want to look at what’s wrong with it, warts and all.
“This movie [exposes] the behavior of the public education status quo and talks in a successful way about what some of the alternatives are, in a way people don’t usually have education reform presented to them,” Bradford continued. “It does school choice in America a great service by taking a microscope to what goes on in our schools. This movie gives a voice to people who don’t ordinarily have one. Not just advocates and professionals, but moms and kids and families.”
Dan Lips, a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, who hosted an invitation-only screening of The Cartel on July 28, agreed.
“It was well-done and timely—really compelling,” Lips said. “New Jersey is the state that spends the most on its schools, and most of that is wasted on an inefficient system. I’m not surprised by what I saw, but I hope parents and taxpayers will be.”
Layers of Corruption
Though teachers union officials also appear in the film, the unions have criticized Bowdon for making it. They claim he did so at the behest of and with funding from E3 and other reform groups, which he denies.
Even though he was aware of the dire situation in New Jersey’s schools heading into the project, Bowdon said he was constantly surprised by what he found during the two years of filming.
“I didn’t think I would start finding six-figure janitor stories and $30 million football field stories at schools with 85 percent low-income students, but I did,” Bowdon says. “I think the biggest single thing the movie does is bring together some information that was all out there but not juxtaposed. The movie takes these disparate elements and creates a larger picture where people are forced to say what caused this level of corruption to continue.”
Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.