“The Cartel” : Propaganda for Pro-School Choice Movement?

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In  2009, news anchor Bob Bowdon wrote, directed, and produced The Cartel, an award winning documentary that offers a critical view of the American public education system by examining issues plaguing the schools of New Jersey, a state ranked number one for per pupil spending in the United States.  Using interviews, news clips, data from international and national test scores, and statistics about school funding, Bowdon weaves together a tragic story of New Jersey’s students floundering and trying to escape from the failing public schools that are rampant with bad teachers and bureaucratic corruption. In this film, Bowdon attempts to convince viewers of the negative effects of teacher unions and school officials who control public education, “a multi-billion dollar cartel”, and advocates for market-based reform based on school choice and accountability.

The documentary begins with a statistic that “only 38% of high school seniors can read at 8th grade level” ( Bowdon, 00:01:26)  to shock the audience into awareness of exactly how bad the public schools are doing. After doling out more statistics about falling test scores to expose the poor quality of education in public schools, Bowdon informs viewers about the amount of spending per classroom annually to make his first point: government spending on education is excessive and pumping more money into schools is not the solution. He uses New Jersey as the perfect example of this, revealing that despite the exorbitant amounts that the state spends on education, the schools are failing their students.

Given this juxtaposition of quality of education versus the public expenditure on schools, viewers naturally would be wondering : where is the $300,000 – $400,000 spent per classroom actually going if not to improve the quality of education? Bowdon highlights news stories of local corruption and interviews public officials and schools administrators to show that the money is either being ill-spent or pocketed by “cigar-chomping superintendents” and other such school bureaucrats. According to the documentary, the overpaid administrators and teachers care more about lining their pockets than looking out for the interests of students and that they aren’t being held accountable . Such reports of corruption at the expense of the students and their parents no doubt will elicit the concern and anger of indignant viewers.

Bowdon then accusingly turns towards the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), New Jersey’s teacher Union that appears to be obstructing necessary reform measures, such as getting rid of tenure and giving merit-based pay to teachers. He suggests that the politically powerful NJEA, by protecting bad teachers and blocking the movement for vouchers and charter schools are denying parents better education choices for their children and increasing educational inequality. The film’s most emotionally moving scene takes place at the lottery for a charter school when big tears begin to roll down the face of a little girl who appears extremely heartbroken because she failed to escape the horrible New Jersey public school system (Bowdon, 01:17:51).

Crying Girl

Bowdon’s advocacy for school choice and accountability as the solution to ensure quality education for students is aligned with the notion of market-based reforms. He uses his documentary to show that vouchers and charters schools, such as the Northstar Academy in New Jersey where students are “trained in behaviors of the professional world” (Bowdon, 01:10:45) and are therefore prepared to succeed in a capitalist society. Although there is no shortage of references to how a school should be run like a business, such as car dealerships and coffee shops, Bowdon fails to address the negative effects of school choice and schools being run like businesses. On its sister website, www.thecartelmovie.com, viewers are encouraged to “learn about charter schools, vouchers, and other educational alternatives—and support the efforts of groups such as the Alliance for School Choice, New Jersey’s Excellent Education for Everyone, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the Center for Education Reform, and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.”

The Cartel won numerous prizes, which they listed on their website, and appeared to be well received by the public. The New York Post which stated, “For parents of kids in public schools, the heartbreaking documentary ‘The Cartel’ is a revelation” and that “few documentaries have covered such an important matter so convincingly and with such clarity” (Smith, 2010). New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also praised the film as “very important” and claimed it helped mold his policy decisions (BowdonMedia, 2011).

Aside from its poor video quality and bad animations, the film was criticized for a number of things ranging from its biased, limited interviews, its failure to offer the opposing side of the story, to its implicit messages. The lack of debate and one-sidedness in this documentary is apparent as Bowdon interviews very few members of  the opposition and only speaks to frustrated teachers and administrators who have failed to help reform schools from within. He also does not mention past reform efforts that  have possibly influenced the negative educational outcomes seen today, such as the No Child Left Behind policy. It is clear that Bowden’s interviews and news clips are not meant to offer the audience a variety of views on the issues of public education. Rather, Bowdon takes a biased approach in which he is “cherry-picking” and guiding interviewees to share opinions and evidence that support his view, and in some cases goes as far as to put words in people’s mouth, so to speak (Bowdon, 2009) (00:25:02 ; 01:01:06). According to the New York Times movie review, “Mr.Bowdon …employs an expose-style narration lousy with ad hominems and emotional coercion” (Catsoulis, 2010).

In response to Bowdon’s pro school choice push, Stephen Whitty, a reporter for the Star Ledger, a Newark based online newspaper, gives reasons for why school choice might not solve the national education mess. According to Whitty (2009), Bowdon ignored issues of whether charter schools are any better as well as the problem of their “self-selecting nature” as only certain parents would take advantage of such schools. Whitty also asks, “What if the vouchers didn’t cover the tuition at the prep you wanted, or the school didn’t want your child? How about that whole pesky church-state thing…?” (2009). Whitty also discloses that Bowdon got “post-production support from a couple of partisan groups, including a pro-voucher organization” (2009).

In her book The Reign of Error: the Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, education historian, professor, and policy analyst Diane Ravitch points to how the charter movement has become “a vehicle for privatization of large swaths of public education” which results in a loss of the democratic control of schools and creates a system in which charters competes with rather than complementing and collaborating with public schools (2013). She reveals that charter schools under private management, which have not produced consistent high scores nor proven their superiority over public schools, are exempt from state laws and financial auditing and actually spend more public dollars on their students than public schools (Ravitch, 2013). She also warns of the danger they pose in increasing racial and class segregation( Ravitch, 2013).

According to Harvard Educational Review (Brion-Meisels, 2011) the kind of charter schools and reforms that Bowdon praises makes clear some implicit messages of the film. Firstly, it sends the message that the purpose of public education is simply to give students equal access to economic opportunity (Brion-Meisels, 2011). Secondly, it sends the message that “the culture of high-accountability charter schools is more valuable than the cultures from which these low-income students may come” and devalues the culturally unique ways in which these students’ parents support them (Brion-Meisels,2011).

Using test scores as the measure for success, The Cartel paints a dismal picture of public schools in New Jersey to imply that public schools throughout the nation are failing horribly and that a market-based approach to reform would reduce the costly inefficiencies. He focuses only on the misfortunes of one State and claims that this story is equally true for schools throughout the nation. Though the statistics Bowdon uses to win his audience over are verifiable and come from legitimate resources, he fails to tell the story behind these numbers that put them in a real world context that would lead to an accurate understanding of what they mean. Bowdon’s poorly made documentary appears to be nothing more than a biased propaganda for the school choice movement leading towards the privatization of the public education system. The real threat of misleading documentaries like this one lays in the fact that it might prevent people from the true underlying causes of the public education mess in America, such as the systemic economic and social inequalities that exist.


Bowdon,B. (Director). (2009). The Cartel [Documentary].United States: Moving Picture Institute

BowdonMedia. (2011, January 2). Chris Christie comments on The Cartel movie. Retrieved February 23, 2013, from http://youtu.be/-9KY8uAxIJA

Brion-Meisels, G. (2011). The Cartel/The Lottery/Waiting for “Superman”…. Harvard Educational Review, 81(4), 751-761.

Catsoulis, J. (2010, April 15). Children left behind. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/16/movies/16cartel.html?_r=0

Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Smith, K. (2010, April 16). Nj paradox: Piles of cash, failing schools. New York Post, Retrieved from http://nypost.com/2010/04/16/nj-paradox-piles-of-cash-failing-schools/

Whitty, S. (2009, Octber 08). ‘the cartel’ movie review: Documentary on jersey schools fails debate class. The Star Ledger. Retrieved from http://www.nj.com/entertainment/tv/index.ssf/2009/10/the_cartel_movie_review_docume.html

3 thoughts on ““The Cartel” : Propaganda for Pro-School Choice Movement?”

  1. It is interesting that he would choose the public school system in New Jersey because there is such a diversity of classes in that state. There are incredibly poor areas as well as incredibly affluent areas.

  2. Ada,

    Nicely done, I agree with your critiques of Bowden and the biases in the documentary. One thing that I think would be worth looking at is Bowden’s claim of the ‘greedy, overpaid teacher,’ while all evidence regarding public school teachers today points to the contrary. I’d bet there is good evidence out their to refute Bowden’s claim from that front. Also, your paper feel broken into two very distinct sections: you (1) break down the films plot and message, and then (2) provide critiques. Maybe, if you were to try and weave these two sections together the paper would flow better. Overall very good.

  3. Hi Ada,

    First off, I think you did a good job of pointing out the one-sided nature of Bowdon’s documentary. I think it’s really crucial to understand a film’s (or book’s or article’s, etc.) biases before agreeing or disagreeing with its claims. Given that this was one of the main objectives of the prompt, I’d say you did a spot on job of finding the documentary’s partiality to charter schools/vouchers.

    I enjoyed your use of outside sources to back up your criticisms of the documentary. The article by Whitty was used well, for example. I think to improve the essay and really drive your points home, you could have gone into a little more depth (conversely, maybe spent a little less time summarizing Bowdon to accommodate for a more detailed critique) on arguments against vouchers and charter schools. That was the most interesting part of the assignment for me, and I’d have been really interested to read more.

    Lastly, to really give Bowdon a run for his money, I would suggest adding in a small section (a sentence or two would suffice, since this wasn’t intended to be a long assignment) on alternatives to the school choice movement. For instance, I thought the last sentence about not overlooking the “the systemic economic and social inequalities that exist” in the public school system was awesome. I’d have loved to see a little more expansion on that, maybe as rhetorical questions for readers to ponder when watching this documentary or discussing education reform more broadly.

    Overall, a good review Bowdon’s work, as well as great insight into problems with the school choice movement in general.


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