Bob Bowdon knew that tackling the damaged New Jersey public school system in documentary format would give him plenty of raw material.
He just didn’t know precisely how much material he’d have from which to choose.
“It became kind of like a drug, you’re finding more and more and more of it,” says Bowdon, the mind behind The Cartel, an excoriation of the teachers’ unions ruling New Jersey’s students. “Who at the outset imagines you’d be finding janitors making six figures, or a superintendent making $470,00 one year, the same year he was fired?”
Or, for that matter, a veteran teacher who can barely read?
In The Cartel, out in select theaters now, Bowdon outlines in painstaking detail why the New Jersey school system is a disaster. No other state spends as much per pupil as the Garden State, and what do they have to show for it?
Low test scores. Rampant corruption. Tenure policies that make it all but impossible to fire incompetent teachers. Millions of wasted dollars.
The Cartel connects the dots, Bowdon says, proving that each of the isolated outrages is part of a much more sinister situation fueled by the intractable teachers’ unions.
The situation in New Jersey is a teachable moment for districts across the country, the film argues. And programs like charter and magnet schools offer the kind of school competition that might just yield higher test scores and smarter students.
Bowdon, a former television news reporter, knew The Cartel wouldn’t be an exotic documentary on the surface. He doesn’t have dazzling visuals to share like an environmental film might, nor does he rely on the Michael Moore brand of infotainment.
So he decided to overload his film with talking heads — from both sides of the ideological aisle.
Any project daring to criticize unions will quickly be perceived as a conservative memorandum, but Bowdon is quick to say his allegiances aren’t necessarily with Republicans.
“I’m suspicious of both parties,” he says, adding that he considers himself a libertarian.
That hasn’t stopped some critics for smiting the film on what appears to be ideological grounds. Bowdon knew a first-time filmmaker like himself would receive some credible criticism, and when he reads reviews which break The Cartel down in an analytical fashion he doesn’t bat an eye.
But other reviews have seemed more full of rage than honest critiques.