A would-be searing indictment of public education, The Cartel is undercut by its presentation: it plays like an epic length TV news expose. Given that its many-hatted maker—he’s the film's director/producer/writer/composer and its narrator/host—is a former TV news reporter and anchor, that approach is perhaps inevitable. The doc has won a host of awards at film festivals and it is a policy wonk's dream of a movie, but it is dry, statistic-laden viewing that is unlikely to attract much attention beyond education circles. Box office will be light, but the film seems destined for a happier TV afterlife.
This is also not a movie that will make teachers' unions, public school advocates or liberal Democrats very happy. The focus is on New Jersey schools, but Bowdon insists that the points he makes apply equally to schools throughout the United States. The abysmal test scores in math and reading nationwide certainly are a scandal. Bowdon fingers the culprits: administrative expenses that suck up money better spent in the classroom, tenure that keeps bad teachers teaching, those that oppose school vouchers—especially the teachers' unions and the Democratic political establishment—and unions that exist to advocate teachers' interests at the cost to the students.
There is certainly some truth to all of this, and the New Jersey Teachers' Union spokeswoman he interviews at length only underlines Bowdon's argument with her posturing, which veers from defensive to condescendingly arrogant. When Bowden reveals that the state of New Jersey insists it wants to promote charter schools and yet still finds trivial reasons to deny them (approving only one out of 22 applications in a recent year), it becomes clear just how hard it is to change the entrenched education culture. It is frustrating for teachers of public or private schools who find themselves fighting an immoveable bureaucracy. It’s also maddening for students, and enraging for parents who just want their kids to get a decent education. In one scene parents and kids sit in suspense as a charter school picks new students by lottery, and just how much these families want a better education is evident by the joy at those picked and the tears from those who miss out.
The doc limits itself to the role the educational establishment plays, and that does create holes. There is no mention of No Child Left Behind and what good or ill that initiative has done. Bowdon skips over the roles that students and their parents play in education other than as consumers, but a parent disinterested in a child's education, a disruptive child, or a disinterested child also impact education. He offers lots of charts and statistics denoting the differences between public and private and charters schools, but never gets at why two public schools in the same district might have vastly different outcomes for their students. As an argument for what is wrong with schools, The Cartel is a good start, but maybe PBS or some other educational channel might want to think about hiring Bowdon for a more expansive series. The material's there.
Distributor: Truly Indie
Director/Screenwriter/Producer: Bob Bowdon
Running time: 93 min.
Release Date: April 16, 2010