Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Movie Review: The Cartel

Last Friday, on an impulse, I and my 4-year old rushed out of the house to make the 1pm showing of The Cartel at The Plaza Frontenac (Oohlala).

But I digress; with my toddler's patience clock counting down (as was the number of fries in his lap), and the movie starting 15 minutes late (sans previews, thank goodness!), I was not disappointed in the least. The movie got right down to business as Bob Bowden, the creator of this documentary, reveals to the audience that the New Jersey public education system is about many things, the least of which is actual education.

The public may/may not know that the state of NJ spends an exceedingly high number of dollars per student per classroom, with the average classroom receiving about a sum total of $313,000 (or more) per school year (including teacher salary and overhead). Surprised? So were the NJ residents interviewed on the street, who were asked to guess but named a far lower amount.

So where is the money going if it isn't producing the good results that upwards of six modest incomes combined should produce (if money were the biggest factor)? Bowden follows the moolah everywhere it goes. And not surprisingly, most of it isn't spent in the classroom.

The movie accomplishes several things:
o It dispels the myth that more money equals better schools and better performing students. Most of the money is spent on administrative costs and patronage, a quid pro quo between the teachers union (the NJEA, which is the most powerful lobby in the state) and pretty much everyone on school boards and state and local government. According to the documentary, many friends and family members of teachers, administrators, and school boards obtained their jobs through instances of quid pro quo support of the teachers union's objectives.

(Speaking of administration, the movie does a side-by-side comparison between NJ and neighboring Maryland, both of which have roughly the same number of students in the state. NJ has 616 school districts with all the staff to boot; MD has just 24. You do the math.)

o It reveals that lots of $$$ goes toward exorbitant salaries, severance pay, and pensions; some of them being custodial staff. I said that Bowden followed the money--he did--right into an administrative parking lot where the number of luxury cars might rival that of the dealership where they were purchased.

o It reveals multiple instances of fraud, from teachers using students in order to obtain more money for pet programs to a large construction firm demanding billions on top of billions already paid to construct poorly-built and incomplete school facilities.

o It exposes the NJEA's practice of punishing teachers and administrators for wanting to discipline misbehaving and poor performing teachers. Alongside that practice, the union fosters a mentality that discourages teachers from innovating and benefitting their students if it means that other teachers would look bad by not doing the same.

o It dispels the myths spun by teachers unions that voucher programs are a detriment to public education.

- It dispels the myth that any kind of public voucher program is just a racist Republican scheme to hurt black people and minorities.

- It dispels the myth that private schools and charter schools are unaccountable; those schools are accountable to the parents and to the state, which must approve of the educational objectives set forth in the curricula.

- It dispels the myth that vouchers take resources away from public schools, thereby making public schools worse.

- It dispels the myth that alternative and charter schools favor certain, select students by way of admission.

- It affirms what we've known all along, that competition among schools improves schools, which in turn, benefits the students.

- Finally, it dispels one more myth: that the NJEA is always against vouchers through exposing the double standard that it has toward magnet schools, only because magnet schools are still counted as part of the public education system and the union would still receive funds through those schools. Ch-ching!

The documentary made one important observation about vouchers: change the language, and you change the public's response. If you ask most people if they are in favor of vouchers, many react negatively. However, if you ask if they would favor 'scholarships for everyone' to attend the school of their choice (which is the same thing), the public jumps to support that.

At the end of the movie, Bob Bowden remarks that this is not just about NJ. Indeed, as if corruption exists nowhere except NJ? Everywhere there is a failing school we must pursue the cause and strive to fix it. Our kids depend on us.

The movie had significant personal impact on me. At one point, the viewer joins a room full of anxious parents with their sons and daughters present for the lottery drawing of new enrollees for a charter school. The room is pin-drop silent as the names of children are drawn from a bingo tumbler and read aloud. Tears and muffled elated crying begin to filter from the crowd after each name. Near-silent dancing breaks out as one mother, overcome with joy, dances out to the foyer to praise Jesus that her daughter, in her words, now "has a chance." The joy eventually turns to sorrow as another set of tears begin to flow, this time from the children who must also listen for their names, but only to hear their place on the waiting list. It is not rejection, but it is the awful realization that they must face another year in public school if nothing else comes through for them.

As a mom with a child in a public school, I couldn't help but shed a tear along with these families, for both the 'winners' and the 'losers.' Something primal in myself understands that for something as essential as an education, children should not be trapped in the prisons of bad schools. Parents should have the freedom to use the public funds set aside for their children to seek better schools and better teachers. The state's authority comes in second to parents when it comes to the education of our children, and the teachers union, none at all. Parents in every school district in the country need to wield that authority for the good of their own kids and demand that the state, which holds their money, must relinquish it for the good of the future.

Every concerned parent should see this movie.
Read other reviews of The Cartel.

View the trailer.

No comments: