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★★★★✩

The Cartel

Directed by Bob Bowdon

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“Cartel,” noun, is just another word for a trust, a coalition and in some ways, a monopoly. A cartel is also what former Bloomberg Television reporter Bob Bowdon labels the American education system. Given the United States’ persistent anti-trust efforts, shouldn’t they have already scrutinized and addressed this increasingly out-of-control industry? Perhaps the problem is that few actually know about all the messy politics entangled with our schools. In Bowdon’s 90-minute rapid-fire documentary, he makes sure that his audience understands that in addition to health care and the economy, there is another crisis in this country.

Believe it or not, studies indicate that only 37 percent of high school seniors in the United States read at 8th grade level. The U.S. is also way behind all the developed countries in literacy, and even some less developed countries. As Bowdon lists these unsettling facts, we see him asking several pedestrians whether America should spend more money on education — their answers are a resounding “Yes”. Yet, the film goes on to reveal that the U.S. continues to spend more than any other country on education. This apparent contradiction is the essence of the Cartel crisis. Bowdon centers the film on New Jersey — the state with perhaps the most inefficient, monopolized education system in the nation.

In New Jersey, only 29 percent of graduating seniors are proficient in reading, only 40 percent in math; one school’s per-classroom spending reached $313,000, but only $55,000 of that went towards teacher salary. Driven by such startling statistics, the film paints a full spectrum of the underlying factors, possible solutions, and limitations in this big dilemma. Bowdon investigates school decisions (is a $30 million new football field worth it?); bureaucracy (why does New Jersey have fifteen school districts for the size of one district in Maryland?); shady construction (how did the New Jersey Schools Construction Corporation manage to lose $1 billion?); the unions (is it alright for the teacher’s union to fight with an all or nothing mentality and protect even the bad teachers?); and the lack of alternatives (why is there so much opposition to school vouchers and charter schools?) The film exposes the questionable connections among all the power players in the education cartel and leaves the rest to us.

The Cartel presents all this controversial information engagingly, incorporating a variety of sources, including investigators, teachers, parents, students, union leaders, politicians, talk shows, newspaper headlines, etc. Using on-screen multiple-choice questions, diverse graphic representations of statistics, the film is also fast-paced. When confronted with the scene of the charter school lottery — where winning students cried tears of joy and losers cried tears of defeat — the audience is forced to realize that the public education crisis is here and now.

The Cartel is firmly opinionated — visible from its clear support for school vouchers and distrust in the teacher’s union. However, are Americans kids really that behind? Is the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers’ union, really that scary? Statistics are imposing, but who is to know that they are not at all misleading — just as how the film portrays NJEA’s advertisements. Not every school system is like New Jersey’s, and not every district in New Jersey is as corrupt as those depicted in the film.

Having come from a high school in NJ, I am now beginning to speculate why many parties in my district were so frustrated with the administration and board of education, and what it means when “Vote to pass the school budget today!” pops up all over the Facebook newsfeed.

I can’t verify and judge everything Bob Bowdon reports, but I can say the information is highly stimulating. The Cartel’s comprehensive assessment of the current American school system offers the public much-needed exposure to an industry that, if reformed appropriately, will actually educate American children and make better use of our money.