‘The Cartel’ sides with charter schools as alternatives

Posted: April 29, 2010

Your first clue that the school-choice documentary "The Cartel" is not happy with teachers unions is its title.

Writer-director Bob Bowdon is from the post-Michael Moore school of unabashed advocacy, and pitches his titular "cartel" as a knot of union officials and bought-off politicians. This cartel, he contends, controls the state education budget and makes self-preservation a priority over more effective teaching and better graduation rates.

The movie has naturally infuriated teachers unions, who have questioned its use of data. Most of the teacher input in "The Cartel" is from individual teachers and administrators who have tried to reform schools from within, and met with resistance from entrenched interests.

"The Cartel" wears its heart on its sleeve, and that heart belongs to charter schools, presented uniformly as heroic initiatives - Bowdon visits the CERN school in Camden, N.J., where parents can meet modest tuition requirements by working as volunteers.

Bowdon believes fervently in school choice, and brings his argument to theaters at a time when the tectonic plates in the stratified debate are shifting violently.

Longtime charter advocates like Diane Ravitch have switched positions as growth in the charter school movement, drawing more students into the pool, has started to show diminishing returns in terms of student performance.

On the other hand, a union-dominated state like Illinois has made startling movement toward school choice, built around an unlikely coalition of conservative reformers and urban leaders tired of waiting for city schools to fix themselves.

"The Cartel" downplays (but does not deny) reconsideration of the charter and choice movements, and is more comfortable lauding the church officials, parents, and teachers (especially in cities) who break with unions over reform of failing schools.

Bowdon is sneaky in the manner of the modern documentarian - pro-charter voices are young, attractive, stylish. Those on the other side, not so much. And he's not shy about emotional persuasion, and saves his money shot for the movie's finale - a Newark, N.J., public school student, inconsolable and in tears because her name was not called in a lottery for admission to a charter school.

A cheap shot, perhaps, but it does underline one of Bowdon's points - there seems to be no end to complex data mining and intricate argument among social scientists about the root causes of public school dysfunction in big cities. No end and no urgency - especially to the student who wants to go to a better (or at least safer) school tomorrow.

Less emotional, but in its own way more effective, is Bowdon's piggybacking on the reporting of Jersey newspapers about wasteful/corrupt education spending, which shows just how small a fraction of the education budget actually makes it to the teachers and to the classroom.

Produced, written and directed by Bob Bowdon, A Truly Indie release.

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