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The Cartel

Laugh line of the day: Hoboken International Film Festival.

by Susan Ohanian

Okay, I haven't seen the film "The Cartel," just the trailer and some clips on You Tube. But I have been to the Moving Picture Institute website.

The Institute sees its mission as providing "a distinctive and nuanced portrait of deep-seated American values such as free speech, freedom of association, and the free enterprise system."

Libertarian film makers?

Here's their description of The Cartel:

Documentary Feature: A feature-length documentary film about our urgent national need for school choice, "The Cartel" shows us our failing educational system like we've never seen it before.

It focuses on New Jersey as the poster child for the perceived abominable state of public education everywhere.

April 30: "The Cartel" opens in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Washington DC, Philadelphia, and St. Louis! It will be playing for a week in each location (Friday, April 30 through Thursday, May 6). Director Bob Bowdon will be doing Q&A on opening night at the Chicago and Philadelphia locations.

Bob Bowden is the producer of "The Cartel." Formerly a reporter for Bloomberg News, he's now an on-camera reporter for the Onion News, Network, which seems to prove that some Libertarians do have a sense of humor. Here is Bob Bowden's response to the New Jersey NEA attack of the movie. Hot links to their "review" are embedded in his piece.

I wish the NEA had done a better job of criticizing the film.

Here's a review from The Star Ledger, Oct. 8, 2009

by Stephen Whitty

'The Cartel' movie review: Documentary on Jersey schools fails debate class

Reviewing documentaries used to be so much easier.

Back in the old days-- say, pre-Michael-Moore --a critic went to a film, looked at the photography and editing, made a considered judgment and wrote it up. Now you almost have to re-report the thing yourself. Who didn't the filmmakers interview? What's the background of the three "experts" with whom they did speak? Who gave them funding? Which facts were left out?

The Cartel (Unrated) Bowdon Media (90 min.) Directed by Bob Bowdon. Now playing in New Jersey.


Rating note: The film contains nothing to offend.

It's exhausting and, practically speaking, nearly impossible.

So let me state my own biases before I review "The Cartel," a biased new film about New Jersey public education and some parents' push for charter-school alternatives.

Years ago, my father attended Jersey City schools, then Rutgers, and got a good education. My two children are in suburban public schools now and get a great education. I know some schoolteachers who are doing terrific jobs.

This may be similar to your experience. It is not, however, a scenario Bob Bowdon would recognize. In his eyes, the state education system is inherently, irredeemably corrupt. The teachers' union caters to its dues-paying members (as if any union doesn't) and is riddled with slackers. Our public schools are a mess and a drain on our strapped economy.

You might agree. But if you think there may be anything more to the story, don't expect to find it here. Like the worst "documentaries" -- and, like Moore's work, Bowdon's film earns the ironic quotes -- there's no attempt to hear both sides, no purpose except to hammer home some talking points and, maybe, influence legislation.

Unlike Moore, Bowdon isn't a natural filmmaker; his sarcasm is heavy-handed, and the film's style (which relies on some crude animation and lots of old TV clips) is flat. But he does share that more famous rabble-rouser's dislike for balance. In the twisted view of "The Cartel," every New Jersey school is in a slum -- yet also full of eager, well-parented students who arrive ready to learn, only to run headlong into incompetent teachers and corrupt fat-cat principals.

That's his reality. Is it yours?

Sure, plenty of our public schools aren't turning out ready-for-success graduates. But might not the first school reform begin at home, by raising respectful children who value education? And might it continue by allowing our schools to expel the ones who won't?

That, I think, would be the sensible, social-conservative point of view.

But Bowdon (who got post-production support from a couple of partisan groups, including a pro-voucher organization) takes a more political approach, blaming it all on unions and Democrats.

"School choice," he insists, would solve everything, but that involves more than just charter schools. What if the vouchers didn't cover the tuition at the prep you wanted, or the school didn't want your child? Oh, and how about that whole pesky church-state thing -- do you want your tax dollars going to help fund madrassas? These are questions Bowdon doesn't really explore.

Nor does he address whether charter schools are truly any better. He suggests that, even if they aren't, it doesn't matter, because they're safer. But doesn't their self-selecting nature --only truly involved parents are going to jump through those enrollment hoops -- guarantee that?

Logic doesn't really matter because movies like "The Cartel," which trumpets its slant, from its title to its "Godfather"-inspired typography, aren't interested in exploring questions. They just want to trot out the conclusions they've already drawn.

As long and as loud as they shout, only the already converted ever listen.

Here's a review from the website of the Heartland Institute, a free-market, pro-school choice outfit:

Documentary Questions Education Status Quo
By: Gary Jason
School Reform News

Review of "The Cartel," directed by Bob Bowden. 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 Bowden, The Cartel explores the many problems of the New Jersey public school system. Bowden 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 Educational 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 Educational 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

Bowden 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, Bowden 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 (profgaryjason@gmail.com) is a contributing editor to Liberty (www.libertyunbound.com), where this review first appeared. Reprinted by permission.

Liberty was founded by R.W. Bradford in 1987 as a national journal of libertarian opinion, news, investigation, and intellectual exploration.

When a Libertarian outfit calls a film about public schools "tremendous"--and a pro-choice outfit like Heartland reprints the review, you can figure how deep the trash is piled. After all, Heartland is funded by the likes of the John M. Olin Foundation, Inc., Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Scaife Foundations (Sarah Mellon Scaife, Carthage), the Walton Family Foundation.

The Cartel website offers hotlinks to some more positive reviews. Here's one without a hot link:

The Cartel is a terrific documentary which vividly illuminates what school reformers already know--the 'system' is in trouble and teacher unions are the major problem.
-Robert Enlow, President & CEO, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice

So you get the idea.

And if you missed the point, The Cartel website has a page urging you to support school choice.

I welcome an incisive review of this film.

— Susan Ohanian




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