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Taking Back America By Taking Back Our Schools

Forbes recently featured The Cartel as the premier education documentary this year--the film that helped "set the stage for a year of reform, and a year of reform movies." Noting that the film paved the way for other films like Waiting for Superman and The Lottery, Forbes says that The Cartel "helped drive the discussion" about the urgent change needed in America's public schools, making education reform the most talked about issue this year.

The Cartel is now available on DVD and Video on Demand. Click here to purchase your copy, and visit to view the trailer, read reviews, and more.


A Year of Education Reform, and Reform Movies


John Koppisch


If there was an award for Issue of the Year it would go to education reform in 2010. Basing pay for

 teachers on merit, ending life-time tenure for school employees, closing failing schools rather than trying to save them, clearing the way for more charter schools—they all became hot topics in the press and online. The year began with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan dangling millions of dollars of Race to the Top grants in front of states in a push for wholesale reforms. It ended with Shanghai topping other places around the world in tests for high school reading, math and science. U.S. teenagers’ performance was once again mediocre, assuring that the national education debate won’t end any time soon.


Three documentary films this year helped drive the discussion. “Waiting for Superman” made the biggest splash. It focused on five grammar-school students and their efforts to get a decent education. Earlier there was “The Lottery,” which zoomed in on the make or break lotteries that parents and children endure to escape bad schools. But before those there was “The Cartel,” which takes apart the education establishment in one state—New Jersey—by exposing everything from the billions wasted in a school construction program to the remarkably high number of luxury cars in a Newark school administrators’ parking lot. Presaging the two movies that followed, its most compelling moment comes when it visits the annual lottery for a Newark charter school and keeps the camera on the students as they slowly realize their numbers are not going to be called.

The Cartel was put together as a labor of love by 41-year-old, Hoboken, N.J., TV journalist Bob Bowdon. Seizing on the reform zeitgeist, it captured nine film-festival awards and opened in theaters in 25 cities around the country. N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, who’s made a national name for himself by going to battle with the teachers’ union and ushering in a wave of school reforms since taking office last January, saw it twice and—in a YouTube clip in October–gives Bowdon credit for helping him to inspire his education policies. This month The Cartel was released on DVD, cable TV video on demand and other platforms.

The movie leaves many people enraged as they leave the theater and that’s how Bowdon felt as he dug into the topic. Like most people—especially people who don’t have children—he was blissfully unaware of the many practices, mechanisms and laws that keep schools under-performing and budgets bloated. He had not yet encountered the infamous education blob of union leaders, administrators and elected officials that absorbs and defuses just about any attempt at reform. Early in the decade he was hosting a call-in cable show and the topic one day was tenure. “It sounded like something out of a Third World country, a decree that no one could be fired,” he says in an interview in his Hoboken office. “Then I found out we have that here. And yet people who were intelligent didn’t consider that a job for life in this high-tech economy was a preposterous anachronism. I was dumbfounded.” Then he had a friend who got a job as a public high school English teacher and he began hearing the stories—the work rules that limited how a school could deploy its staff most effectively, the incompetent teachers who got the same guaranteed raises as the best teachers, the innovative programs—like distance learning—that got killed because they threatened the union. “I saw that the union is very good at muddling their interest and the kids’ interest.”

Another thing he saw was that rarely did anyone in the press write about this, and rarely did anyone connected to education even talk about it. “I felt there was an edict of silence being forced on people to discourage speaking out about the abuses,” he says. “That’s one reason I did the movie. The country’s been asleep. I did the movie to wake people up, shock people.”

The underbelly is indeed dark, and like the other movies, fingers are pointed directly at the unions, and their unholy alliance with elected officials locally and in state capitals. Teachers’ union campaign contributions that get recycled right back into enormous salaries and gold-plated benefits. School boards dominated by teachers (who work in other towns) and other members of the education establishment. Board elections held separately from other elections in order to keep turnout low and voters unengaged. “Parents love their kids and want to do well by them, but they equate loving their schools with supporting everything the schools do,” says Bowdon.

In some ways Bowdon is the wrong messenger. He’s a libertarian who was predisposed to see the inanity of the system. New Jersey’s teachers’ union went to war against him and though the movie was well-received in many quarters—reviews in the Los Angeles Times and Philadelphia Inquirer, among others, were very positive—some parts of the press that have long ignored these issues were remarkably hostile. In a review last April, the New York Times called it “visually horrid and intellectually unsatisfying” and said it was “lousy with ad hominems and emotional coercion,” adding: “In one particularly egregious scene [Bowdon] parks his camera in front of a weeping child who has just failed to win a coveted spot in a charter-school lottery–another tiny victim of public school hell.” Of course, scenes like that later became the whole basis for the critically acclaimed “Superman” and “Lottery.” But “Superman” was made by Davis Guggenheim, who also made Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” and that gave his movie instant credibility with the press and the left. And that’s probably the biggest development in this Year of Education Reform—the left is starting to get what’s wrong with schools, from President Barack Obama on down. Give Bowdon some credit, however, for helping to set the stage for a year of reform, and a year of reform movies.



Views: 24

Comment by Shane Stapley on December 23, 2010 at 3:40pm

I have obtained my own copy of the movie "The Cartel" and have watched it from beginning to end.  As a school board member, I'm VERY interested in doing what I can to ensure that Gilbert Public Schools doesn't fall under the same areas of financial ridicule that districts in NJ have.  Indeed, Arizona has one of the single most favorable environments for public education by comparison.  School Choice is the mantra, coupled with financial accountability.  While Arizona has done well and continues to do well with school choice overall, there is room for improvement in both quality of choice AND financial accountability.


On the flipside, the behemoth that is the education bureaucracy and the massive momentum and resources it has at its disposal is truly impressive even if oppressive.  Newly elected school board members are immediately pulled in by the machine within weeks of the election for a massive dose of liberal indoctrination and double-speak.  Enter stage left - The Arizona School Board Association (ASBA) to which nearly every school board in AZ is a subscribed member... and which unabashedly has a legislative agenda to which the common denominator in all legislative efforts is "MORE MONEY".


The ASBA has publically declared war, seriously now, it was actually stated during the recent 3-day orientation event at the Biltmore, where ASBA officials stated that they are declaring war on the AZ Legislature because of many things, one of the bills being proposed by the legislature is the banning of school districts spending any funds with organizations that have a lobbying interest.  Of course, this would kill the ASBA itself that charges districts a subscription fee for services and has a lobbying interest as well.  Included in this would also be the Gilbert Education Foundation - GEF, and PLAN - Parent's Legislative Action Network, both of which Gilbert Public Schools supports their websites.  Not to mention of course, the fact that Gilbert Public Schools actually has a lobbying interest itself and spends public funds to pay for a lobbyist.  I think if more folks knew this, there would be hell to pay.

Comment by Harry Mathews on January 2, 2011 at 11:12am

Shane, if you can get me some hard eveidence of this, I will do everything i can to get the word out-and i can do plenty.

"Not to mention of course, the fact that Gilbert Public Schools actually has a lobbying interest itself and spends public funds to pay for a lobbyist.  I think if more folks knew this, there would be hell to pay."


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