The Cartel

We don’t have any model of an urban school system that has been reformed. Everybody understands that it’s an impossible job.

Michael Petrilli

“The United States spends more per student in education than any other country,” says Bob Bowdon at the top of his documentary, The Cartel. Yet the results — measured variously — hardly reflect such apparent investment. A montage of TV reports offers a snapshot of the sorry state of American schools: a “third of all students are dropping out of high school,” complains Lou Dobbs; Michael Bloomberg worries that kids “can’t read”; and indeed, in 2006, only 35% of high school students scored proficient in reading tests, and just 23% are proficient in math.

The Cartel is splattered with scary numbers like this. Bowdon goes on to focus on schools in New Jersey, an area he covered as a television news producer and reporter for some 15 years. Because New Jersey spends as much or more than other states on public schools, it’s an example of what’s going wrong in U.S. school systems generally, despite a “spending explosion.” In New Jersey, the film reports, spending can reach $400,000 per classroom, and yet the outcome seems relentlessly grim: only 39% of eighth-graders read proficiently and only 40% can manage math. More than 75% of New Jersey’s high schools have been warned they may be placed on the state’s list of failing schools.

Determined to learn why these numbers are so bad, Bowdon takes his camera crew into high schools, interviewing administrators, students, parents, teachers, and people on the street (typically ill informed). He begins by debunking a longstanding myth, that teachers are paid too much. As Bowdon outs it, the $30 billion spent in 31 New Jersey school districts does not “go to the classrooms.” Rather, he says, much of the money (in at least one school’s case, some 90 cents of every dollar) goes to “administrative costs,” to janitors (who sometimes make “six figures,” with overtime), and, at Shabazz High School, to building a $30 million athletic field. “Could this money have been better spent elsewhere?” he asks the school’s principal. “Absolutely,” she answers.

Such “elsewheres” need serious thinking through, posits Bowdon’s film. While this part of the argument seems obvious, strategies for fixing the system remain elusive. The documentary is structured to instruct. Sections are labeled as they lay out problems (“State spending,” “Local corruption,” “Unions,” “What we have learned”), and some antic animation illustrates numbers and definitions of charter schools and voucher programs. Interview answers range from earnest descriptions of dire circumstances (Matt Katz, a reporter in Camden, testifies, “The violence is unfathomable as far as I can tell”) to evasions and proliferating talking points.

This last result is clearest in Bowdon’s sit-downs with New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) president Joyce Powell. Bowdon returns to her repeatedly, as the New Jersey teachers’ union turns into the film’s plainest target. “It’s easy to stereotype the union,” Powell says. “But in most cases the union is extremely supportive to ensuring we have students who are successful.” Bowdon’s skepticism is obvious. Good teachers, the film argues, are poorly served by the union, which proscribes creativity (one teacher says she’s unable to start a garden club because it’s against union rules) and protects bad teachers. “Good teachers deserve our respect. Wanting lousy teachers out of the classroom doesn’t mean you’re against all teachers,” says Bowdon, “A point so obvious I can’t believe it needs to be made.”

And yet it does. And so The Cartel makes it repeatedly, in various ways. Michael Glascoe, an outgoing school superintendent, indicates that he was forced out by the union because he tried to make changes in the school day (making classes longer, giving teachers fewer breaks). Clips from TV indicate an array of observers aligned against corrupt or inefficient or wrong-headed teachers’ unions, from Mort Zuckerman to Adrian Fenty to Arne Duncan. On his HBO show, Bill Maher underscores: “This overly powerful and selfish union must be busted.”

The union is not the only “cartel” in The Cartel. The film also points to cronyism, elaborate (and some far too simple) systems of kickbacks and payments, and egregious ineptitude. If the argument occasionally seems heavy-handed or inflammatory, it is often compelling. And it returns again and again to the students who too frequently become afterthoughts as the adults argue amongst themselves. As one student at the charter school, Robert Treat Academy, describes the new situation: “I think it’s the same kids [here, but] the school handles them differently. In my old school they didn’t tell you to be kind to one another, to work hard. They just gave the work. If you did it, you did it. If you didn’t ,you didn’t.” With guidance and structure and thoughtful planning, the film underlines, the “same kids” can do fine.

RATING 6 / 10