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A scene from THE CARTEL (Photo: The Motion Picture Institute)

Written, Produced & Produced by Bob Bowdon
Released by the Moving Picture Institute  
USA. 90 min. Not Rated  

Decades ago, I got my first journalism beat by convincing the editor of the high school newspaper that the monthly meetings of the local Board of Education in our New Jersey township should be covered. When I followed-up, the administration made it clear that the paper’s budget came from the board and I should stop asking questions. In The Cartel, television journalist Bob Bowdon shows how little has changed when he asks a lot more questions of the local and state education establishment than I could and really digs for answers.

The Cartel is a forceful diatribe against public education in New Jersey, and it sometimes rises to the level of a useful, if noisy, case study applicable to the national debate about No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top government funding. Bowdon is strongest as an investigative reporter exposing the byzantine, nepotistic, self-perpetuating structure of local boards of education impenetrably soaking up billions in tax dollars that never make it to the classroom, which is not unique to New Jersey by any means. But even as he forcefully shows how their budgets are subject to the influence of the teachers’ and other unions, he stumbles over the boards’ legal separation from the state’s multiplicity of municipalities, which was originally a good government improvement what with New Jersey’s perpetual corruption issues. Just as he selectively uses statistics and examples around the country, he could have pointed to how Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrestled control of the New York City public schools away from a board specifically to align responsibility with municipal authority.

Bowdon is a personable interviewer with inner-city parents, students, whistleblowers, community activists desperate for better schools, and dedicated teachers (he continually emphasizes his support for classroom teachers as opposed to their union). Unfortunately, his reasonable solutions are undercut by slanted, anti-government ideology like that of the film’s sponsor, the Motion Picture Institute, which distributes films that are “passionate about the defense of a free society.”

His weakest technique is using montages of rapid-fire inflammatory questions posed by TV news provocateurs as if they were stating facts. Accompanied by his own songs, his graphics imply that the extent of his fact-finding was via Google search, and only one national researcher is interviewed. Unlike PBS’s thoughtful coverage of these educational issues on Frontline and the NewsHour, there is no input from neutral national leaders at such sources as the Gates or Broad Foundations, even though for years they have been major supporters of the kind of charter and alternative schools he insistently champions. And he is far too casual about the impact on children when public money supports parochial schools through government-funded vouchers by quickly dismissing religious participation as “voluntary.” Those of us old enough to remember prayer in the schools would differ. While The Cartel is narrowly focused on New Jersey politics, luckily the personalities are as idiosyncratically colorful as The Sopranos to illuminate national issues. Nora Lee Mandel
April 16, 2010



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