Monday, July 06, 2009

The Cartel

How far does a billion dollars go in New Jersey? Evidently, not very far. The NJ Schools Construction Corporation “lost” upwards of that amount, and how did they respond? Naturally, they demanded billions more from taxpayers. Yet, the SCC is only emblematic of far greater corruption. Bob Bowdon exposes pervasive graft and outright collusion between the New Jersey educational bureaucracy and the NJEA, the state teachers’ union, in his devastating documentary The Cartel (trailer here), which screens during the upcoming Jersey Shore Film Festival.

Even though New Jersey is the number one state in America for school funding, the current governor has proposed further increases. Yet as Bowdon documents, precious little of that money will actually reach students, or even teachers in the classroom. After all, New Jersey is not called the Soprano State for nothing. Still, the corruption in the New Jersey school system is absolutely staggering. In addition to the scandal of the disappearing SCC funds, a KMPG audit of the so-called Abbott districts (economically 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 NJ taxpayers are 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 a legitimate 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 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 would 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. After winning the Audience Award at this year’s Hoboken International Film Festival, The Cartel screens again at the JSFF on July 8th, July 14th, and July 15th.