See “The [New Jersey] Cartel” in a Theater Near You

By 04/21/2010

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Today, I finally watched “The Cartel,” a documentary produced by Bob Bowdon opening in theaters around the country this month. (A link to the trailer is also available on this website). I had for some time been ignoring Bowdon’s repeated requests to write a promo for the film. Told I was in it, I found every excuse to avoid taking a look.

Is “The Cartel” worth watching?  Absolutely, especially if you live in New Jersey.  Bowdon combs the Garden State for stories of waste, fraud and abuse, and, as the anecdotes pile up  and the statistics unfold, the schools’ gardens  turn into weed patches tended by corrupt boards and self-interested union leaders. After we are told of disastrous test-score performances, funded by the highest per pupil expenditures in the country, the head of the New Jersey Education Association presents the fact that only 0.03 percent of all tenured teachers are fired as convincing evidence of their exceptional quality  Later on, the New Jersey State Department of Education gives no explanation for authorizing only one charter school among  22 applicants.

The two best moments in the movie: 1) Unmitigated joy and undeniable grief on charter school lottery night, a scene that teared me up.  I recovered, however, when the union leader helpfully explained that such rapture and despair were nothing other than a desire by some to go to an experimental school.  2) The rapper-style comment on opposition to merit pay:  “We came the same day, we get the same pay.”

I cannot say the movie tells both sides of the story.  But like other contemporary documentaries, “The Cartel” tells its own side–the school choice side–in a compelling manner.  Bowdon needs to travel to 49 more states—and then to the District of Columbia. Then he needs to return to New Jersey to tell us whether the state is now reversing direction.

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