Thursday, April 15, 2010

Kids vs. Special Interests: The Cartel

Did Bob Bowdon’s documentary influence the New Jersey gubernatorial race? Perhaps not directly, but when the reform-minded Chris Christie won the New Jersey governor’s office less than a month after his film opened in the Garden State, despite an onslaught of negative campaigning from the New Jersey teacher’s union, it would appear to be part of the Zeitgeist of the times. Indeed, Bowdon exposes pervasive graft and outright collusion between the New Jersey educational bureaucracy and the NJEA, the state teachers’ union, but also offers some construction prescriptions for improvement in his devastating documentary The Cartel (trailer here), which finally opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday.

Even though Jersey is the number one state in America for school funding, the previous governor had proposed further increases. Yet as Bowdon documents, precious little of the money spent actually reaches students, or even teachers in the classroom. Truly, New Jersey is not called the Soprano State for nothing. Still, the corruption in the New Jersey school system is absolutely staggering. For instance, a KMPG audit of the so-called Abbott districts (economic depressed school districts which receive massive amounts of state aid) revealed twenty-nine percent of expenditures were suspiciously excessive or insufficiently documented.

As scandalous as such potentially criminal financial shenanigans are, the abuse of power at the local level is arguably worse. Bowdon’s interview subjects have plenty of horror stories, like the principal who was unable to fire teachers for watching porn while on duty, because they were politically connected (perversely, he would be the one let go). For fun, Bowdon counts the number of luxury cars in the Jersey City Board of Ed parking lot. (Rather than spoil it, let’s just say the sequence takes a full thirty seconds, which is a considerable amount of screen time.)

There is no question beleaguered Jersey taxpayers are still taking it in the wallet and shins, but Bowdon always makes it clear the biggest victims of such institutionalized dysfunction are the students themselves. The bottom-line is far too many public school students cannot read at grade-level or perform basic arithmetic, leaving them ill-equipped for the future job market. His touchstone image for the film comes from the annual lottery for a prized place in one of Jersey’s few charter schools. For those kids and their parents, getting out of their “zip-code” school is considered their only chance for a future. Those who win a spot are truly overjoyed, while those who do not literally cry tears of sorrow.

Bowdon is an experienced journalist, who worked as an on-air correspondent and producer for recognizable Tri-State outlets like WB11. While he conducts several on-camera interviews with union and school board bureaucrats, he is always fair, resisting the temptation of cheap gotcha tactics. In truth, he hardly needs such theatrics, given the strength of the scrupulously reasoned case he presents. Unfortunately, some viewers might dismiss his arguments on behalf of school vouchers as too “ideological,” even though he presents his case with unassailable logic. Yet, in doing so, he offers legitimate solutions instead of merely bemoaning the horrendous state of New Jersey schools.

Bowdon repeatedly makes the point that the distressing trends detailed in the film apply nationwide. While that is no doubt correct, the abuses are particularly egregious in the Soprano State. One might anticipate disturbing anecdotes in a documentary about the public school system, but The Cartel surpasses all expectations. It is an important documentary and a valuable alarm bell that both parents and taxpayers need to heed. It opens this Friday (4/16) at the Quad in New York and the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.