The Cartel is a documentary by Bob Bowden about the weaknesses in the current public school system in 2010.
In it, he talks to school officials, a few teachers, one or two law makers and a number of students spread across one public school and three charter schools in New Jersey. New Jersey was chosen because that state spends the most taxpayer money on education, but still has some of the lowest test scores in the nation.
At first, I found the movie rather informative. He addressed questions about where the money goes, the lack of oversight and the amount of corruption in the schools. Unlike some people I’ve had conversations with, this movie made a point of how little of the money actually goes into teacher’s salaries.
He also talked about how hard it is to fire a bad teacher especially after they’d been tenured, like those with abusive tendencies, and some of the problems with the teacher’s union.
Something that shocked me was how dangerous it is for some teachers to step forward when they spot administrative problems. Although retaliation against whistle blowers is illegal, the teachers who did bring attention to problems faced black listing and demotions because of their actions.
One of those teachers was awarded Teacher of the Year in 2004, and ended up resigning due to the backlash. Her story, and the other teacher’s, demonstrated how the political side of education isn’t about the children at all. It’s all about money and power.
I was rather disappointed in the second part, though. Instead of providing ideas about how to provide more oversight over what money goes to who or generalized systemic restructuring, it focused only on voucher programs and how great charter schools are.
I also noticed that he focused on only one urban public school, which hardly seemed fair. He concentrated only on test scores and the danger presented by the student body instead of the causes behind those two issues.
It also seemed as if the selection of charter schools was very careful. Two of the featured schools enforced the school uniform rule, and had much higher standardized testing rates. The third charter actually had lower grades, but was deemed safer than whatever public school the kids had transferred from.
Although quite a few people sing this documentary’s praises, I was disappointed.
Instead of offering any unique avenues of change, it seemed intent upon selling the idea of vouchers. It did a very good job of that. In the end, it was all about redistribution of money, instead of addressing actual problems within our schools.
Personally, I rather like the idea of parents being able to choose where their children go for their primary schooling, which is what vouchers could do. However, I also know that the voucher program is just as easily corrupted as the public school system. Further, the right schools for your child may not be “approved” for them, due to political or ideological reasons.
IDEA and special education weren’t mentioned once, which also bothered me.
Overall, it was pretty interesting, but it’s the kind of movie I’d advise taking with a grain of salt.
Once you take the emotion out of it, the bias towards a specific, potentially flawed solution is pretty evident. However, if you would like to learn more about corruption within the current system and potential advantages about to vouchers, I’d suggest watching it.
Just don’t expect any earth shattering solutions.
Right now, it’s streaming on Netflix, and it’s probably available via Amazon. The web page is here, if you’d like more information from the documentary makers.