Mark Reviews Movies

THE CARTEL

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Bob Bowdon

MPAA Rating: NR

Running Time: 1:30

Release Date: 4/16/10 (limited); 4/30/10 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 29, 2010

Television producer, reporter, and anchor Bob Bowdon joins the reactionary bandwagon of criticizing government spending for the public good.  Unlike some of his higher-profile contemporaries, Bowdon avoids vitriol and sound bites intent on riling up viewers and establishing easy-to-digest rhetoric.

He actually uses facts from statistics and budgets in The Cartel.  There are numbers in the film (oh, so many numbers), and they point to a clear disconnect between the reasoning for spending money on education and where those dollars actually end up.

Using his home state of New Jersey as a template, Bowdon argues that funding for education is excessive and only a fraction of it has a direct impact on students.  The suspects are the usuals: corrupt politicians, teachers' unions, and the sacred cow status imposed upon anything related to education.

One of Bowdon's jumping off points is the contradiction in salaries between teachers and the superintendents of school districts, the latter making more than double a yearly income than the people entrusted with teaching kids.  Most of the state's education budget goes toward administrative costs, ensuring that a lot of people have jobs that might not be that useful in the first place.

New Jersey, it seems, has some really big problems intrinsic in its education infrastructure.  Maryland has 24 school districts; New Jersey has 616.  Even taking into account that Maryland is smaller in population (by 3 million) and density, the difference is discouraging.

Bowdon insists that the problems within the educational system in the Garden State is a microcosm of the rest of country, which is perhaps his weakest point of contention simply because of the time spent on New Jersey's system, but yes, to a degree, he has a point (The recent proposed budgetary cuts to education in the state shows that some other people noticed, too).  The facts presented in this case are surely enough to encourage one to investigate their own state's budget for administrators with low- or no-show jobs.

Teachers' unions are not shown in a favorable light, but then again, the logic of the union spokesperson makes no rational sense when presented with cases of suspected abuse and a rhetorical disregard for teachers over the necessary existence of the union.  Good teachers go unrewarded, are discouraged by making the same amount of money as someone who doesn't do as much work, and sometimes even leave the profession.  Tenure status ensures that even the worst stick around, even one teacher who revealed he was illiterate after teaching for 17 years (Ironically enough, he taught English).

These interviews and news clips are well chosen, and give Bowdon credit for using the graphic of a chalkboard to much better and more honest effect than another conservative mouthpiece uses real ones.

Bowdon's solutions are, like his targets, typical.  A voucher program would give parents the option to move their children into a private school, and the loss of enrollment would force the public ones to reevaluate and better themselves, which Bowdon displays using crude, stick-figure drawings.  Charter schools are also important to his answer, and even though kids inconsolably cry after not being selected from a lottery of potential students, New Jersey refuses to open more based on, according to some who applied for the status, minor mistakes or oversights on the application.

Bowdon wants us to believe, and makes a good case for, the system and all its parts working together to ensure the system and its parts continue on the set course without any interruption.  Agree with his solutions or not, but the evidence for a major problem is there.  Just don't suggest to him that the problem might be a lack of a unified, national education system.

Setting aside political differences, The Cartel is effective in presenting its message: Money pours in, and less than 40 percent of high school seniors in New Jersey can read at an eighth-grade level.  The question, "Is our children learning," has never seemed a more appropriate statement for the state of education in the United States.

Copyright 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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