It turns out that our country’s public education system—just like politics, religion, and health care—is a giant racket. Quelle surprise! For anyone who reads (or perhaps the more accurate word now is “watches”) the news, Bob Bowdon’s The Cartel will likely offer little enlightenment as it examines just how screwed up our country’s schools are. Rather than tackle America, though, the TV host and first-time director focuses on New Jersey, which reportedly is the state with the largest per-student budget.
Anyone who gets a thrill out of town meetings may salivate at what Bowdon—whose present job is at the Onion News Network—throws at viewers, which is all statistics and wonkery. Yes, it’s terrible that in many cases, 80 percent to 90 percent of a school’s budget goes everywhere but toward teachers’ salaries. It’s absolutely wrong for a janitor to make more money than an educator, and regarding administrative higher-ups, fergetaboutit: As one commenter says, “The higher number of Mercedes Benzes [in the parking lot], the worse the school district is.” And even though the teachers may earn a meager salary, unions and tenure make firing the inept nearly impossible. In one case, an illiterate man taught English, undetected, for 17 years. In another, it took two years to terminate a volatile teacher who slapped and threatened his students.
Bowdon interviews many people in the school system who readily admit to seeing rampant theft, scandals, nepotism, and cronyism—and most keep their mouths shut, because to blow the whistle usually means never getting hired in their fields again. The Cartel gets most interesting when it addresses vouchers and charter schools, long hot-button issues in the District. While the bottom-line of these alternatives sounds good, some allege that public-school administrators are the ones who are afraid of loss (student, budgetary, etc.) and therefore propagate these ideas to the parents of their largely minority student body as ones created by the Rich White Man—and you might as well throw in Evil. Bowdon interviews at least one mother who says she can’t comment, because though it may sound like a good idea, others are telling her differently.
A look at charter schools is a bit more hopeful, with one in particular (Newark’s North Star Academy) standing out with well-behaved students and excellent testing records—which the school achieves with a fraction of the budget most public institutions receive. The charters are so popular in New Jersey, in fact, that there’s a lottery to see who’s accepted. It’s heartbreaking to watch one girl weep when she finds out she’ll be only on the wait list. But when two other moms, whose kids have been accepted, have to leave the room because they can’t keep their joy quiet. Bowdon asks, “What does this mean to you?” The answer, accompanied by tears: “It means my daughter has a chance.”