“A parent says to me, ‘Oh my kid goes to a great school,’ and I said, ‘Lady, your kid can’t read or add two and two!–what do you mean it’s a good school?'” That’s New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a graduate of Medford High School in Massachusetts. Bob Bowdon, a graduate of Cypress Creek High School in Houston, Texas, places this C-SPAN clip near the start of his first documentary, “The Cartel,” wherein he muckrakes public education in “the #1-spending state in the #1-spending country.” That would be New Jersey, where Bowdon covered regional news, worked for Bloomberg Television and now plays fake TV reporter “Brian Scott” for the Onion News Network. He also heads an Internet marketing firm in Hoboken that specializes in VFRs (“Videostreams for Retail”). “The Cartel” sells a distressing expose of New Jersey’s school boards and teachers union. Some numbers: $30 million spent on Malcolm X. Shabazz Field and Stadium. Abington Avenue Middle School spent $436,096 per classroom, with only about one-eighth of that going to pay the teacher in each of those classrooms. Nearby Maryland organized its schools into twenty-four districts, each administering 35,000 students; New Jersey created 616 districts that each administer 2,300 students. The overhead is staggering; student test scores are abysmal. The union sees fit to dismiss a mere 0.03 percent of its member teachers per year. Of twenty-two applications to start charter schools, the state’s Department of Education recently approved one. Besides cataloguing endemic scandal, Bowdon counters the despicable rhetoric of one high-profile opponent of charter schools. We see his PowerPoint presentation at a local NAACP debate that links a 1955 quote by Milton Friedman–the late economist was advocating “school choice” in terms of “the freedom of private enterprises to experiment”–to the notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Bowdon also rebuts stances such as: merit pay is unfair to inferior teachers with tenure; firing one bad teacher means hating all teachers; and it’s better to teach all kids badly in unionized public schools rather than let some of them get better teaching in private charter schools. Bowdon sounds alert to “the dangers of institutionalized egalitarianism,” as his sponsor, the Moving Picture Institute, phrases a perceived crisis in civic policy. “Our goal is to guarantee that film’s unique capacity to give shape to abstract principles—to make them move and breathe—is used to support and promote liberty,” states MPI’s site, that lists “The Singing Revolution” and “Marina of the Zabbaleen” as other documentaries it backed. 92m. (Bill Stamets)
“The Cartel” opens Friday at Landmark Century. Bowdon will appear after the 7:30pm show, April 30.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.