The Cartel is a 2009 Americandocumentary film by New Jersey-based television producer, reporter and news anchor Bob Bowdon, that covers the failures of public education in the United States by focusing on New Jersey, which has the highest level of per-student education spending in the U.S. According to The Internet Movie Database (IMDb), the film asks: “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’?” The film regards teachers’ unions as the cause of the problems (they are “the cartel” of the title), due to, among other things, the obstacles they put in place to firing bad teachers, through tenure. It also makes the case for school vouchers and charter schools, suggesting that the increased competition will revitalize the school system, leading to improved efficiency and performance in all schools, both district and charter.
The film debuted at the Hoboken International Film Festival on May 30, 2009 and was awarded “Best of the Festival (Audience Award)”. It opened in New York City and Los Angeles on April 16, 2010, Houston on April 23 and in Denver, Minneapolis, Boston, Washington D.C., St. Louis, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago on April 30.
Bowdon interviewed “school administrators, teachers, parents, students and education advocates” for the film. Among the interviews are State Education Commissioner Lucille Davy, Clint Bolick (former president of Alliance for School Choice), Gerard Robinson (president of Black Alliance for Educational Options), and Chester Finn (president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute).
The film highlights the problem of waste and corruption in the New Jersey public school system that Bowdon claims is rampant in districts throughout the country. He chooses the New Jersey area as it serves as an example of what can happen when problems are addressed by allocating more budget money to a problem rather than attempting to find and correct the problem directly. The administrative inefficiency present in New Jersey is highlighted by Bowden’s comparison of the state’s educational system to that of another state that Bowden explains is chosen because it is nearby and similarly populated, Maryland. On average, Maryland has one school district for 35,000 students, whereas New Jersey has 15 school districts for the same number of students.
During 2008 budget crisis, while many other departments were “on the chopping block” (proposed budget had 4B in cuts), the teacher’s union successfully lobbied for a 5% increase in education spending.
Construction costs and related corruption also represent a major cost according to Bowden. The New Jersey School Construction Corporation (SCC), now known as the New Jersey Schools Development Authority (NJSDA), which was responsible for the managing of construction of schools and educational infrastructure in the state allegedly didn’t have any set budget, and was not monitored effectively by any other body; as a result, it is alleged that the organization “lost” between $500 million and $1 billion without a trace to poor accounting.
Bowden points out Malcolm X Shabazz High School, which he describes as one of the many under-performing schools in the state, which spent 6 million dollars on constructing a brand new “state of the art” football field, rather than spending the same money to improve academics.
Another major problem with the public school system according to Bowden is the difficulty with firing tenured teachers, seemingly no matter how bad they are. Rules originally put in place by the teacher’s unions to protect teachers, he argues, have come to hinder fairness and accountability and actually hurt good teachers by keeping bad ones in place. He cites as one example an illiterate high school teacher in California who taught for seventeen years, relying upon the help of “student aides” to do the necessary in-class reading and writing for him.
During her interview, the head of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) Joyce Powell responded to criticisms of the tenure process: when presented with a statistic that only 0.03% of tenured teachers are removed from the classroom, she suggested that this was true because 99.97% are “doing a good job,” saying “I think 99.97% should be celebrated.”