Monday, April 12, 2010

The Cartel

(Originally posted 10/16/09)


I finally had a chance to watch the new documentary, The Cartel, last night (they sent me a DVD to review).  It's a shocking look at New Jersey's K-12 public education system, which spends more money per student than any other state, yet produces abysmal outcomes due to the usual reasons (but likely worse in NJ than most other places): a powerful, ruthless union, patronage and outright corruption on a vast scale, etc.  It's showing at a few theaters in NJ (see and hopefully it will soon be available for purchase on DVD.  You can watch a 2:30 trailer at:


The film interviews all the right people, including education reform warriors like DFER's Joe Williams, Reginald Jackson (head of New Jersey's Black Ministers Council), Derrell Bradford and Dan Gaby of E3, Clint Bolick, Checker Finn, Paul Bambrick-Santoyo and Norman Atkins of Uncommon Schools, and many others.  There's a very nice segment on Uncommon School's North Star Academy in Newark, with an especially powerful piece on the lottery, with some parents jumping up and cheering and the unfortunate others crying, knowing that failing to win the lottery means their kids are almost certainly completely screwed.


The most amazing interview, however, was with Joyce Powell, President of the NJEA, who actually agreed to be interviewed and was like a deer in the headlights as she tried to explain the endless children-screwing behavior of her union.  The best part was when the interviewer asked her how it could be that only 1 of every 3,800 teachers was dismissed for incompetence -- 0.032%.  She said -- I'm not making this up -- that we should celebrate the fact that 99.97% of teachers are great, and said wouldn't it be wonderful if such a high percentage of doctors were so good.  The film followed that knee-slapper with the point that incompetent doctors can lose their license, whereas it's nearly impossible to remove even the worst teacher.


The one critique I've heard of the movie is that it's overly harsh toward Gov. Corzine and his Commissioner of Education, Lucille Davy.  They have actually been friends of high-performing charter schools and I heard that the charter school applications that Davy rejected, which The Cartel makes a big stink about, were poor applications and should have been rejected.  They've also recently developed a streamlined charter application process.


Here is a review of the movie:

A failing grade for N.J. schools

If Bob Bowdon's documentary The Cartel is to be believed - and the news anchor-turned-Internet marketeer makes a strong case - New Jersey's public school system is, indeed, about learning your ABCs. Except that the A stands for avarice, B for bureaucracy, C for corruption.

An alarming portrait of a state that pours more money into its public schools than any of the other 49 and yet continues to turn out underperforming students with substandard educations, The Cartel does what good reporters are supposed to do: follow the money.

It also counts up the fleet of Mercedeses and Infinitis parked outside the Jersey City Board of Education - there are a lot.

What the film reveals is that New Jersey's 611 (yes, 611) school districts are larded with highly paid administrators and support personnel. Literally billions of dollars have gone missing - in school construction funds, in payouts to ghost organizations and phantom employees. And thanks to a teachers' union that seems more interested in protecting its members' jobs than raising the level of work they do, it's virtually impossible for a teacher in a New Jersey public school to be fired. No matter how egregiously bad, or even abusive, he or she might be.

The Cartel (a title that doesn't serve the film well) lays out its facts clearly, and Bowdon - while no Michael Moore (and maybe that's a good thing) - asks the right questions. New Jersey taxpayers, and the state's political leaders, need to see this documentary. And then they need to do something besides throw more money at a terrifying problem.


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