The Soprano State Cartel

Posted on

A cartel is an explicit agreement in which competing firms work in collusion to increase their own profits while eliminating the competition. This is accomplished as “producers and manufacturers agree to fix prices, marketing, and production”. [1] Typically, that word brings to mind visions of drug cartels or organized crime. Prior to watching The Cartel by Bob Bowdon, a documentary film that claims to be making a statement on the state of education in America, while narrowly focusing in on New Jersey, cartel and public schools would not be two words which I would have thought people felt were synonymous.  Bowdon, a reporter and news anchor, comes out swinging against teachers unions, the ring-leaders of the cartel, and cites “administrative bloat and lack of oversight” [2] being behind the failure of New Jersey public schools.

The film begins by stating that New Jersey spends more money than any other state on public education yet, students continue to receive poor test scores, no matter how much money they throw at the problem. Bowdon questions what do you get with all this spending and where is all the money going? Through the use of substandard graphics Bowdon presidents the superintendents of the New Jersey schools as a figure reminiscent of the Monopoly Man.

At one point he even goes so far as to count the amount of luxury cars in the parking lot of the Jersey City Board of Education.

Bowdon calls New Jersey the “soprano state” and discusses how administrators receive incredulous salaries, bad teachers can’t be fired and this whole process is protected as the New Jersey Educational Association (NJEA), the main teachers’ union, “exert a disproportionate influence on the public policies that most affect their members.” [3] This influence of the union, on politicians, school board members and even on election dates prevents administrators and policy makers from achieving educational equity and block policies that would allow for school choice.

The control exerted by the teachers’ union creates “the multi-billion dollar cartel” also known as the American educational system and Bowdon’s solution to the terrorism being committed by the cartel is to implement a corporate reform strategy resting on school choice and accountability. School vouchers are introduced forty six minutes and nineteen seconds into this documentary. Forty six minutes were spent narrating the problems: corruption, teachers’ unions, wasteful spending as the underlying problems in education. Forty six minutes were spent narrating a story with statistics on how American and New Jersey students in particular are as a majority not proficient in reading and math on standardized tests. Bowdon’s theory of school reform is that providing access to voucher and charter schools which are not run by the “cartel” will give them access “to the skills and behaviors necessary for access to economic opportunity.” [4]

The film captures pieces of a NAACP debate between Reverend Reginald Jackson, Orange Board of Education and Walter Farrell, Professor of Social Work at UNC Chapel Hill. In trying to diminish the argument of the CON speaker on voucher programs, Farrell, Bowdon criticizes the way Farrell uses the luxury cars owned by voucher supports as a statement that voucher supporters too are driven by profit and far removed from the inequality they claim they are trying to solve. Ironically, didn’t Bowdon count the cars in a parking lot earlier?

In his conclusion Bowdon says what we have learned is that:

“people think we should spend more on education, but they have no idea what we are spending now. When they find out they are amazed. People support higher education budgets because they think teachers should make more, but only a fraction of school spending goes to the teachers…. Schools that have to attract kids to exist are run better.  Schools that are guaranteed a supply of kids, no matter how well they do , are usually run worse. Teacher’s unions are designed to protect the jobs of adults, not help kids. Teacher tenure helps protect bad teachers, the good teachers are often just as frustrated with the system as anyone. Teacher unions are not like other unions because they have a huge hand in selecting the superintendents with whom they’ll later negotiate. School vouchers would give poor parents an alternative to terrible schools.  Defenders of the status-quo say poor parents should not have the option of a private school even if it’s better or cheaper.”[5]

What we do not seem to have learned though is how this corruption will be avoided in privately-run schools, how this competition is playing out in different states, how curriculum and teaching will be improved, if there are different ways to assess learning besides standard tests, how much of the money given to these school districts with a majority of minority students is spent on things considered obstacles to learning (such as malnutrition) and in providing those resources to students and when students stopped being students and became customers.

[1]  Sullivan, Arthur; Steven M. Sheffrin (2003). Economics: Principles in action. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458: Pearson Prentice Hall. pp. 171.

[2] The Cartel, (00:08:11)

[3] Adrianson, Alex. “The Cartel: How Special Interests Block Real Education Reform.” The Foundry Conservative Policy News Blog from The Heritage Foundation. N.p., 30 July 2009. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.

[4] Brion-Meisels, Gretchen. “Editor’s Review.” Harvard Educational Review (2011): 753-754. Harvard Education Publishing Group, 16 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 Feb. 2013.

[5] The Cartel, (1:28:44)

Video Analysis: The Cartel

Posted on

The documentary, The Cartel, by director Bob Bowdon covers the quality of American education, primary focusing on the public schooling in New Jersey. One of the main arguments that Bowdon brings up is how can New Jersey have the highest spending level per-student in the country, yet its students fail to perform well in school.
On average 37% of high school students can’t read at the 8th grade level and 90% of those with a high school diploma failed an 8thgrade math test.

The Cartel, 0:04:38

The problem is that the state is putting money into the schools, but where is it all going? Throughout the film parents as well as teachers are interviewed and all can agree that the school system is corrupt, where the staff on the school board are much more satisfied with their own salaries rather than student performance.

According to former teacher Beverly Jones, “The children are not the focus. Money is the focus and what happened to the money, no one knows because the money does not reach the classroom”[1]. At JKF high school in Patterson, per classroom, it costs roughly $313,000. Minus the teacher salary is nearly $55,000 there is about $250,000 that goes elsewhere[2].

The Cartel, 0:07:13

Bowdon points out that in this corrupt system, the administration in Newark doesn’t deserve such a high pay because the schools aren’t reaching the level where students can actually learn. It’s ridiculous that in a high school classroom of about 20 people, half of them cannot read or cannot do simple elementary school math. For the parents, whom do they blame for their children not getting the proper education that they need to be successful? Is it the teachers? Or the state? In my opinion it is both. In 2007 Shabazz High School spent $30million on a new athletic complex, but 1 out of every 7 seniors at the school tested lower than proficient in math. In the Abbot school district ¼ of the budgets were wasted, leaving schools with little money for reconstruction sites. In one case $1billion just disappeared and no one had an answer to why. The teachers union is also a problem. Bowdon brought up the point that bad teachers rarely get fired. In an example that probably shocked many viewers was the teacher who actually hit students. One would think that he would get fired immediately, but it took 2 years to get him out. Also, there was teacher in California who taught 17 years while being unable to read and write. According to Hector Bonilla, a principal who was fired for reporting a teacher watching inappropriate videos says,“[these teachers unions] play dirty because it is so much money involved”[3]. Another parent claims that the system, “has been pimping their children for a very long time”[4]. Still the New Jersey Schools Development Authority credits its schools for having the highest graduation rate, yet the drop out rate increases each year.

The Cartel, 0:22:07

A solution for these problems are to get students into schools where the teachers are willing to explain work, rather than just handing it to the children carelessly – if they do it fine, if they don’t, fine. In magnet and charter schools students are performing much better than they did in previous schools and are actually enjoying what they are learning. One student mentioned that in his old school, there were fights everyday. Since he had transferred schools he is learning in an environment where the teachers care and he has gained a feeling of safety.

The motive of this film is to ultimately open the eyes of the taxpayers, policy makers, and reformers to show that not just schools in New Jersey, but also schools around the country are ruining the lives of children. Because of money, children’s dreams of having that great job in future are getting cut shorter each day. The viewers are able to see the joyous expressions on those who get accepted into better schools, whereas those who don’t get their lottery number called are left to suffer in failing schools.

The Cartel, 01:18:07

Still there are critics who just don’t buy in to Bob Bowdon’s reasoning. Children Left Behind, a New York Times article by Jeannette Catsoulis, bashes the film stating, “[Bowdon] employs an exposé-style narration lousy with ad hominems and emotional coercion. Visually horrid and intellectually unsatisfying, “The Cartel” demonstrates only that its maker has even more to learn about assembling a film than about constructing an argument”[5].

Although the director does not do such a good job on the editing process, he excels in conveying the message that our schools are corrupt. Reviewers call the film a revelation as it portrays drastic numbers like only 35% percent of American seniors being proficient in reading and 25% in math. Bowdon points out that the most money is going to the worst schools that are considered “dropout factories”.

The Cartel, 01:00:46

With overpaid administrators and bad teachers the nation’s school board has to do a better job in finding a way where students can enjoy, learn, and feel safe a school all the time regardless he geographic location.


[1] The Cartel, directed by Bob Bowdon, (2009; Moving Picture Institute), 0:24:40.

[2] The Cartel, 0:07:13.

[3] The Cartel, 0:46:10.

[4] The Cartel, 0:58:32.

[5] Jeannette Catsoulis, “Children Left Behind”, New York Times, April, 15, 2010, accessed February 23, 2013,

The Cartel and Ineffective Spending in Schools

Posted on

The film The Cartel is a critical review of the questionable administrative practices in American education using New Jersey public and charter schools as a case study. Reporter Bob Bowdon discusses largely the ineffective tendency in American education to perpetually throw more and more money at a problem without any real progress or change. From an administrative standpoint, Bowdon points out the negative effects of tenure for teachers and how it makes removing ineffective or even dangerous teachers from the classroom. Throughout the movie, there are many interviews with the leader of the New Jersey Educational Association (NJEA), which is the major teachers union in New Jersey. The movie adopts the approach that the union is less concerned with the adequacy of the teachers and more just protecting their jobs, sometimes at the expense of the student. In addition to the harmful effects of the union, the documentary exposes the unfair practices associated with charter school application as well as the district avoidance of approving charters because of the goal of keeping money within the district. Bowdon also highlights the controversial voucher program however they receive so much opposition yet they tend to yield very good results in allowing children to go to schools they otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to. The movie is summed up in a simple statement made as one of the last lines of the movie, “this is a crime, it’s not terrorists that are going to destroy America, it’s urban public education” (The Cartel 1:30:30).

The overarching message of The Cartel is that education operates under a corrupt system. Bowdon points out a few major points as to why this is but clearly rests on the contrast between district public schools and sources of alternative schooling. Under this corrupt system, as much as billions of dollars can go missing and without any sort of accountability it seems that there is no change. The theme of corruption remains throughout the entire movie and doesn’t solely point to monetary examples. Examples such as the district officials denying charters without any official reason or for something as small as a minor typo in the application highlight Bowdon’s critique of the system. With corruption at the root of the issue, he shows how the political structure of the education system is more concerned with the bureaucracy of teaching and not the actual learning of students.

The greatest example of the corruption of schooling Bowdon points out in The Cartel is the level of spending per student in America without and results. Specifically Bowdon points the Paterson JFK High School. After asking people in the community how much they think is spent per class, the consensus is around $90,000. The people are shocked to find out that it is over $300,000(The Cartel 0:06:55). With this kind of spending within the classroom, one has to question why teachers still make around $55,000 a year. This is by far the most compelling evidence for corruption in the schools. It is absurd that as a nation we can spend that much and still be ranked 24th for world math scores as far as the PISA showed (The Cartel 0:02:34). Bowdon’s unique perspective as someone not operating within the educational system allows him to see these gross expenditures for what they really are: an exploitation of practices with no accountability.

(The Cartel 0:06:55)

Bowdon goes on to look at the School Construction Corporation, which is responsible for allowing a billion dollars to disappear. While other programs in the district would have budgets that they went over or needed to supplement, Mary Jane Cooper, the New Jersey Inspector General, points out that for the SCC, “there was no budget”(The Cartel 0:18:47). This kind of oversight to not set limits on large-scale district run programs is exactly what Bowdon is trying to highline throughout the movie

(The Cartel 0:18:57).

What Bowdon takes so much care to point out about the practices in New Jersey he then uses as a model of corruption to apply to the entire country. This is the area of the movie that seems to lack the same level of attention that he uses when looking at New Jersey alone. Amy Biancolli of the SF Gate writes that “From New Jersey, he extrapolates sweeping generalizations about school districts across the country” (Biancolli). While Bowdon’s documentary was received quite well as a message clearly conveying the crisis that our nation is experiencing, it does seem like the only crisis conveyed is the one found in New Jersey. There is definite merit to the question of whether of not this can really be applied to the national education system. While yes many of the points made are problems that are possible in every state that operates with school boards, but is it really a crisis found to this degree across the nation. Amy Biancolli shows how with huge generalizations, Bowdon loses elements of his credibility.



Works Cited:


Biancolli, Amy. “Review: ‘The Cartel’ Rates a failing Grade.” SF Gate. N.p., 30 Apr. 2010. Web. 21 Feb. 2013. <>.

The Cartel. Dir. Bob Bowdon. Bowdon Media, 2009. DVD.