Review: THE CARTEL
So many modern documentaries no longer document and have become filmed editorials determined to prove slanted conclusions and THE CARTLE is no exception. I usually watch these with a grain of salt knowing that what I’m not being told could easily counter what I am. Many U.S. school public systems are in big trouble. The dropout rates in the inner city are tragic, those who do manage to graduate are ill served (less than 40 percent of US high school seniors read at an eighth-grade level), and the amount of tax dollars wasted is literally criminal. THE CARTEL, from writer/director Bob Bowden, places the blame for this crisis squarely on the shoulders of a corrupt teachers union (the sinister “cartel” of the title ) more focused on the protection its members’ jobs and cushy salaries than the welfare of the students. It’s a damning indictment but THE CARTEL is still a mostly one-sided, agenda-driven account. Bowden presents his conclusion then spends 90 minutes laying out his evidence. Fortunately Bowden makes a good case and does a comprehensive job illustrating that the true dilemma lies with overpaid bureaucrats who purposely maintain a defective system that bestows them with mountains of money and a level of job security incomprehensible to most working people.
For THE CARTEL, Bowdon sets his sites on New Jersey’s dismal public schools (it’s a nationwide problem but New Jersey has the highest in spending at $17,000 per pupil per year yet is near the bottom in results) and uses news footage, charts and graphs, interviews with frustrated teachers, and some rudimentary animation to prove his thesis. He compares the public school system of New Jersey with its 600 districts to that of Maryland, a similar size state that has about 20 and points to a bureaucracy that’s become so bloated, foul and entrenched in the states political machine that trimming the fat has become near impossible. Not only do excessive administrative costs eat up budgets, but union dues go straight in the coffers of politicians determined to protect them (aka Democrats) and billions of New Jersey tax dollars are unaccounted for. Bowden exposes shady construction funds, worthless patronage employees, and the infuriating fact that it’s virtually impossible for a teacher in a New Jersey public school to be fired no matter how obvious it is that they should. Bowdon then points at obvious common sense solutions such as merit pay, charter schools and voucher programs that have been proven to improve a child’s opportunity for a better education but sadly shows how hostile the teacher’s unions are to anything resembling competition and how their hand-picked cronies on the state education board rejected all but one of 22 applications for charter schools in 2008 for the flimsiest of reasons. THE CARTEL works best when it puts a human face to the victims of the state’s crooked education system. The most dramatic sequence takes place at a meeting in Newark that is a lottery for coveted places at a charter school. The joy of the parents whose children are chosen is clear while the tears of those who aren’t are heartbreaking.
THE CARTLE needed more balance and Bowden’s style is often clumsy and his obvious rage sometimes undermines his own arguments. The graphics are crude and the exposé-style narration is more fitting for an news show like “Frontline’ than a feature film. Bowdon often fails to put things in context such as the scene where he counts the number luxury cars on the on the state board of education’s parking lot without mentioning how many cars are there in total. Bowden apes Michael Moore by placing himself in front of the camera and interviews frustrated education experts such as Gerard Robinson, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, who explains why it’s minorities who would most benefit from school choice program. His only attempts at hearing from the other side are his interviews with a union rep named Joyce Powell who couldn’t be a worse spokesperson for her cause. In a weak attempt to justify the current system, Powell answers his questions with arrogance, dubious logic and carefully twisted spin that’s handily refuted by research that Bowden has just presented. There’s now more to the story. After THE CARTEL was produced, New Jersey elected a new (Republican) governor, Chris Christie, who has taken on the teachers union by asking teachers to compete for merit pay increases, reform teacher tenure, and to increase the number of charter schools. Anyone who’s seen THE CARTEL won’t be surprised that the union has responded to Christie’s approach with vitriol and death threats. I smell a sequel!