The Cartel
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It sounds perfectly logical that the more money we allocate to schools, the smarter our kids will get. With more money, schools can buy better equipment, add more programs, offer more opportunities to help kids learn—or at least that’s what you might think. But, according to television journalist Bob Bowdon’s documentary, The Cartel, that’s actually far from the truth. Though the US spends more money on education than any other country, international tests show that our kids are still way behind. And although New Jersey spends more on education than any other state, only about 40% of its students are proficient in math and reading.

In The Cartel, Bowdon paints a horrifying picture of New Jersey’s public school system—an institution that seems to be under the control of greedy politicians and corrupt union leaders. Though some New Jersey districts spend more than $300,000 per classroom, test scores remain low—and drop-out rates remain high. Meanwhile, administration parking lots are filled with luxury vehicles, and government contractors misplace billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money without as much as a reprimand.

Using a simple, straightforward TV-journalist approach, Bowdon presents one shocking statistic after another. He isn’t quite as aggressive as some other documentarians (like Michael Moore), but he definitely comes in with an agenda: to expose the education crisis that reaches New Jersey and beyond. He may not tell the whole story, but the story that he does tell is certainly eye-opening—and he makes some attention-grabbing observations.

But The Cartel does more than just expose the corrupt educational system. After examining the problem, Bowdon actually suggests a solution or two. He explores the tuition voucher program, carefully (and repeatedly) explaining how it can mend the system by offering more educational opportunities for students while forcing district schools to stay competitive. He tours charter schools, interviewing students, parents, and administrators about the effect these privately run, taxpayer-financed schools have on students’ educational experience. And, in the process, he offers a somewhat cautious hope that the system can change—and that New Jersey’s children (and children throughout the country) can get a good education, no matter what their family’s income.

The Cartel is a quick-and-dirty kind of documentary. It doesn’t try to wow its audience with flashy graphics. In fact, it feels more like an extended local news report, using Web browser screen shots and clips from a variety of TV shows (both local and national) to illustrate its points. But the quality of the footage doesn’t really matter. What matters is the message. Even though the film’s focus is on New Jersey, these aren’t isolated problems that simply disappear once you cross the state border; they’re problems that affect school systems (and kids) across the country. If you’re a parent or grandparent, an aunt or uncle—if you understand the value of a quality education—The Cartel will terrify and depress you. But it will also encourage you to do something to help change the system before it’s too late.

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