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.
Consider this rant from the New York Times movie review of The Cartel, which brushes aside the avalanche of damning material documented by Bowdon to make its points:
In one particularly egregious scene he 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.
Moore stuffs his films with similarly emotional clips but gets Oscar nominations for his handiwork, not harangues. And, more precisely, what is particularly troubling about the clip in question if a child bemoans the loss of real opportunity?
Bowdon doesn’t have an answer.
“It’s ideologically based. I don’t know how you can say it’s anything else,” he says of such reviews. “Is it not worthy to expose a $470,000 superintendent? Not worthy to to expose 29 percent of monies wasted?“ he asks rhetorically. “None of these points have any merit at all? Really? Nothing to see here, folks.”
Bowdon says he approached a variety of sources across the board — even union representatives — in order to explode enduring myths about public education.
For starters, school choice options like vouchers enjoy broad support.
“We wanted to show that the polling among Hispanics and African-American parents is the highest in that group,“ he says on the subject of school choice. “Those are the parents who desperately need to get their children out of chronically failing schools.“
Bowdon hopes The Cartel will also tell the public that more funding isn’t the answer, and that only a fraction of the money allocated to schools goes toward the hard-working teachers.
“People have this sympathetic view toward teachers and teachers’ salaries. That’s exploited by the establishment,“ he says. “It’s always gotta be more … whatever the amount is, it isn’t enough.“
“They’ve got to eventually face the facts. Money doesn’t equal quality. Throwing money at the problem doesn’t work,“ he says.
Teachers and education specialists routinely reach out to Bowdon now that the film is getting a theatrical release — and media attention.
“I get emails all the time from people enthusiastic about the film,” he says. And their comments are often followed by an urgent request.
“I totally agree but don’t use my name,” he says. “There’s clearly a sense of fear if you do speak out. Of course, you can never be fired,” he says, alluding to New Jersey’s strict tenure rules. “But they can ostracize you. This is a real threat.”