More thoughts on “The Cartel”

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In The Cartel, Bowdon highlights common misconceptions that people have based on misinformation about the education system, promotes the concept that an increase in the number of schools available will increase competition and create better schools, and reveals the corruption that exists within the public school system that allows for the country that spends the most on education to be the country with the lowest academically performing students in the world. Bowdon utilizes a Friedman framework to supposedly better enable disenfranchised students by giving them more school choices, however he seems to completely miss the point for why the students/parents are choosing these alternative schools. It is not for the love of a “better school,” but rather for the love of a safer school.

In this documentary, Bowdon highlights critical problems that exist within the public school system which he identifies as “inherent structures” reflective of a “monopoly model” that is rampant nationwide to the grave disadvantage of the children. He identifies one monopoly that does indeed exist, and rather than address what can be done to the betterment of all children or even what the true underlying problems of all the existing structures that have influenced the educational system, he advocates for another monopoly system, because the children are not the crux of his issue, it’s money. So he promotes school choice within a Milton Friedman framework of free market autonomy that reduces education to a product which can be bought and sold. This effort, this movement, to consumerize and commercialize education to match market demands which views parents as clientele, and efficiency and competition as hallmarks of success is not only disastrous for the educational realities of the children this system purports to be supporting, but is actually apathetic to their struggle and all of the context that engulfs them on a daily basis to either succeed or fail in spite of themselves. Because fundamentally Bowdon is most concerned with a monopoly that does act as a disservice to most children in this country, however not because of the inherent injustice of what that disservice represents, but rather because of the money that is “lost” or wasted as a result of that disservice. Money that is wasted, depending on who you are talking to (since there are individuals that are gaining that money), and money that is also used as power by the force of the teachers’ unions to protect the interest of the teachers, so they say. But most importantly, money that belongs to whom? Money that belongs to him actually, as a resident of New Jersey, and all of his fellow tax paying stateswomen/men. So, really, he’s concerned with what’s happening with his money, not what’s happening to these children, and is manipulating their very real strife to his own economic, and even sociopolitical advantage (in an effort to also gain some power for himself and his “cause”). However, none of this is in regards to the children. Again, those precious minds whose very minds are being used as pawns to further everyone else’s agenda (whether pro school choice or anti school choice), but never actually being considered worthy in of themselves, only to the extent of how they can be monopolized to promote some other agenda, thus being forced to justify their own existence. And not all precious minds, but the minds of those children in the lower socio-economic branch of our society. Because if this was all really about the children, providing the best “public” education system for the children, if this was really a documentary about trying to understand what is going wrong in the public education systems that exist within these neighborhoods, with how the teacher’s union operates within these neighborhoods, than why not explore positive public education systems in other neighborhoods and how the teachers unions operate there? Why not identify a problem, that is obviously an economic issue, but then see how/if at all these same economic issues exist in public education systems in other neighborhoods and how such problems were addressed? In neighborhoods where public schools flourish and success is even normative. Thus, being forced to examine the underlying, insidious, disastrous, cyclical, systematic oppressive forces that exist to the detriment of these children educationally and otherwise. Thus, being forced to recognize different ways that tracking systems do exist still within these neighborhoods to ensure that some students never succeed and are filtered into a life of crime (petty and otherwise) in an effort to either fill prisons or the military, both of which are industries that have also been corporatized and privatized (although the choice is not for the prisoner/soldier “consumer” but the corporate-fueled producer). So of course, neo-conservative individuals, publications, news outlets, etc. support this movie, and ultimately support decentralization and the school-choice movement, which conveniently does not consider the lasting and continuous effects of  privilege, racial and otherwise.

Despite his very journalistic and fact-heavy approach to this documentary, using both pathos and enough ethos to both educate and move the audience, the taxpayers, even Bowdon acknowledges, if only for a moment, that what is at the heart of the educational plight of children in urban environments. Hope Academy is a charter school that is not comparatively exemplary to local public schools statistically, according to test scores, and other quantitative measures. Yet, the students who attend, do not only continue to choose Hope Academy, they feel it is their salvation in many ways. Not for the better quantity education, but rather for the better quality education. A quality that cannot be measured and quantified, but does have scientific support and does indeed yield positive results over time. A high-stress environment, including actual or the threat of physical, sexual, psychological,  or emotional violence is not conducive to learning, especially concerning the first six years of life, the early formative years of cognitive development. School becomes a place one must survive physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual harm, and the consequential development of maladaptive behaviors is a normal response to an abnormal situation. So, the parents who are either beyond elation, or devastatingly crushed when it comes time for the lottery are not happy or upset that their child is going to have better test scores. Whether it’s a lottery for a charter school, private school, voucher school, or just another public school in a better neighborhood, these parents recognize the opportunities that such places can provide for the kind of person their child can become, not just the kind of student they can become. They realize that they can indeed, have a chance.

But such relief should not be seen as only possible in the consumerized and commercialized market world of the school choice movement, it should be inherent within the public school system. Education is not a random birthright privilege for some, and a random numerical privilege for those who are willing to fight for it.  Because the right to learn within a safe environment is a basic human right that should not be trivialized to a product that can be negotiated and manipulated. And it is the responsibility, as well as the economic  advantage, of our government to provide such an education system for all of it’s children.


Olin, Andy. “Director wants to school viewers on the public education system.” Chron. April 23, 2010. Retrieved, March 1, 2014, from

Orange, Michelle. “Documenting Our Crooked Educational System in The Cartel.” New York Village Voice. Apreil 13, 2010. Retrieved, March 1, 2014, from

“The Cartel.”

Bowdon, Bob. The Cartel. 2009. Film

Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

 Alexander, Michele. The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press, 2010.

“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,, 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

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

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

Whitty, S. (2009, Octber 08). ‘the cartel’ movie review: Documentary on jersey schools fails debate class. The Star Ledger. Retrieved from

Behind The Blackboard

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Bob Bowdon, a former television host and reporter from New Jersey produces “The Cartel,” a documentary that takes a look inside the failing American School system. The documentary flips through broadcasts, interviews, news articles and documents that address the enormous issue of public education in America. America is always thought to be the best, at least we like to think so, but scores of the PISA test prove our education is not. PISA is an international math exam given every three years, with an average score of 500 in most countries. America, however, scored a 474, which falls below countries with less developed economies (Bowdon, 0:02:32). While America has lower PISA scores, it ,spends more money per student on education than any other country in the world (Bowdon,0:03:34). “The Cartel” focuses mainly on the state of New Jersey, because New Jersey’s education system shows that despite adequate funding, schools are failing.

Teacher unions, as Bowdon believes, are bad for improving education because they protect bad teachers. In this documentary, there are several accounts where teachers were not doing their job but because of tenure it has been difficult to fire them. Tenure and teacher unions are two parts of the system that contribute to the failing schools. Bowdon also discusses the tremendous amount of spending on administration. An interview with Lee Seglem discusses a particular case where there was a ‘clash in leadership styles.’ The superintendent agreed to resign and the Board of Education paid $470,000 dollars for someone that only worked at the school for a year (Bowdon, 0:12:39). This is just one of many examples of excessive administrative spending. The National Board of Education is spending money in the wrong places and the schools are failing as a result. Education spending is one of Bowdon’s explicit theories of change. The screenshot compares the number of superintendents in New Jersey and Maryland. Maryland, a similar state in terms of size, has a population density but on 24 school districts, whereas New Jersey has 616 school districts. Maryland V. New JerseyDue to the large number of districts, New Jersey spends more money on employing superintendents. As a result, if they cut back on this unnecessary spending they could put more money into teachers salaries. The money should be put into the schools and the teachers salaries rather than paying the administration.

Another important example of how the teachers union is bad is in the false advertising for New Jersey education. False Advertising This screenshot, for example, says that New Jersey has the highest graduation rate- this is false. The commercial that was televised includes SRA (Special Review Assessment) that is an alternative program, and that is 100% entry 100% output (Bowdon,1:04:00). New Jersey drops to 24th in the country when you do not include the SRA. Instead of trying to improve education in New Jersey to become the #1 in graduation rate, the teachers union is promoting education to the public under false pretenses ( Bowdon,0:28:42). Bowdon also talks about Camden, which has the highest drop out rate and lowest scores in New Jersey. In fact, the number of students in the 9th grade is almost equivalent to students in the 10th 11th and 12th grade combined (Bowdon, 0:27:32). There is an interview with a boy, Juan, who is in 9th grade at Camden and doesn’t know the alphabet (Bowdon, 0:45:31);this truly speaks to the level of poor education. Violence has become a huge issue in Camden and is a direct result of these poorly run school districts. The Police Chief of Camden said himself that it was a miracle that he was able to leave the public school ( Bowdon,0:36:12).

School Choice is a big part of Bowdon’s research. He believes that more vouchers should be given to students. It isn’t fair for a child to have poor education just because they do not have money to live in areas with the best public schools. Students should be given more vouchers that would give them the ability to go to a charter or private school and get out of the poor public school system (Bowdon, 1:28:03). Bowdon does a great job at reaching the viewers when he shows a district in New Jersey Charter school lottery.Charter School Lottery As you can see in this screenshot, the little girl is heart broken that her name was not called. This scene really gets to the viewer because an innocent child was just praying that she would have the opportunity to go to a better school. Everyone’s child should have the right to a good education.

Some feel that the documentary failed at portraying poor education in America by focusing on a single state. New York Times article “Children Left Behind,” by Catsoulis, shares the opinion that the documentary is just a bunch of television clips and interviews of people trash-talking the schools in New Jersey. Catsoulis describes The Cartel as “Visually horrid and intellectually unsatisfying,” however, I found it very enlightening (Castroulis). I do believe, that the documentary would have been more effective if it spoke about education in America as a whole rather than just one state. I feel as though the random television clips and articles made it a bit confusing and overwhelming.

I do not believe that School Choice reform is a good reform because even though it gives students an opportunity, that opportunity lies in the hands of their parents. The districts that use School Choice are in poor areas usually where parents might not have the intelligence to make the right decision for their child. What would improve School Choice reform in my opinion would be similar to the Harlem District Zone proposed by Geoffrey Canada. The goal of the Harlem District Zone is to improve education but also educate the parents of Harlem, so that they can make the right decisions for their children (Tough, 23). School Choice reform with an addition of a course to educate the parents in these districts would be much more successful in my opinion. If a course similar to the one proposed by Canada was included to School Choice the reform would not be as flawed. Despite the tremendous spending in our schools, they are still poorly run, which speaks to what those in the system are doing. The money and power is in the hands of people who are corrupting the system and hurting the lives of the children in America. The future of our country is in the hands of our education system and our educators.





Work Cited


Catsoulis, Jeannette. “Children Left Behind.” New York Times. New York Times, 15 April 2010. Web.  22 February 2014.


“’The Cartel’ Director Bob Bowdon on Education Reform” Youtube.Youtube, 26 May 2010. Web. 23 February 2014.


The Cartel, created and directed by Bob Bowdon. 2010.

Tough,Paul. Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America. New York:Mariner Books, 2009. Print.

The Cartel: A Telling Revelation of the Corrupt Educational System in the “Best Country in the World”

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In The Cartel, Bob Bowdon clearly and explicitly addresses the problem within American school systems when he shows a news clip in which the man speaking says that we have an “awful school system” (Bowdon 1:28). Shockingly, on average only 37% of high school seniors in the US read at the 8th grade level.  In the most basic form this film shows that the United States spends the most money per-student, but cannot show where most of that money goes, because it is obvious that this money has not gone into the betterment of the education of students. Bowdon uses the New Jersey school system as an example for what is present throughout the country outlining the effects of teacher unions, and teacher tenure on American education throughout the United States. Through this documentary Bowdon reveals to the viewer that the true problem in schooling is not that poorly performing schools need more money, it is that through corruption, local school boards and state legislatures are all too dependent on receiving more funding as a way to dramatically improve the school’s performance levels.

The Cartel, 0:07:15
The Cartel, 0:07:15

The Cartel is a documentary that was created and directed by Bob Bowdon in which he interviews board members, former principals, former teachers, and even teacher union leaders en-route to discover what is really wrong with American public education. Although he conducts his documentary only in New Jersey, Bowdon makes a clear statement that these figures are represented in other states in this country (maybe not all equally, but many show staggering numbers like New Jersey). Bowdon explores topics such as local funding, unions, patronage, vouchers, and charter schools and finds that much of what is decided within schools is decided through politics. Throughout the documentary Bowdon asks many New Jersey residents if they think schools should receive more money, not to his surprise all of his interviewees said yes, they think schools should receive more funding because classrooms are too run down, but in reality these people do not know that schools are receiving billions of dollars each year. Schools, it is revealed in this film, are receiving billions of dollars and no one knows where the money is going. Bowdon also looks at the charter school system and how charter schools do in comparison with public district schools, he found that most charter schools perform significantly better than public schools while spend less dollars per-student. Because parents have favored charter schools more and more, there are not enough seats available to students; charter schools go through a lottery. Charter school officials believe that everyone deserves to attend their schools, however, there are not enough spots, and therefore the only fair way to accept students is through a lottery.

Bowdon finds that many teacher unions and the protection of bad teachers through tenure are partly to blame for the low success rates in public education. Bowdon concludes that tenure and teacher unions protect the jobs of bad teachers. At the 0:34:55 minute mark, Bowdon is in an interview with Joyce Powell, the president of the NJEA Union and is speaking about an indecent where a tenured teacher said to a student, “I’m going to kick your ass bitch” and after saying this to a student proceeded to punch the student in the chest. Bowdon found out that this same teacher was given a deal, left the school, and the district agreed not to tell future employers why she left the school. Powell goes on to defend the decision of the district stating that everyone makes mistakes and people should not be penalized for their mistakes. After this interview, it is clear to Bowdon that teacher unions protect and defend “bad” teachers and make it difficult for good teachers to succeed.

The most crucial scene in this film, in my opinion, was when Bowdon is interviewing Beverly Jones, a former teacher of the year in New Jersey, and she is expressing her views of the corrupt public education system. Jones is brave enough to express her views, however, she does give insight on what her peers (some of who cannot afford to step up and risk losing their jobs) would say about the public school system:

“The children are not the focus, money is the focus. And what happens to the money no one knows because the money does not reach the classroom” (Bowdon 24:40).

Beverly Jones Interview, The Cartel 0:24:40
Beverly Jones Interview, The Cartel 0:24:40

While explaining that this is what other teachers would say, Jones is clear about sharing these feelings as well.

Bowdon points out the corrupt nature of the school system and expresses that teachers unions play into this corruptness. Bowdon briefly makes the claim that teachers unions play a significant role in electing superintendents who they later negotiate with in order to fulfill their wants and needs.

In a Q&A with Bob Bowdon, Bowdon explicitly states that the problem is corruption and the amount of money being wasted by the school system in an effort to “help” educate children better. Bowdon later simply says that the solution is school choice, something that is missing in education. In this same interview Bowdon addresses his critics and states that the facts shown in his film are not exaggerations; janitors are really making six figures, and they are documents coming from online sources that show through articles that his points are valid.

In my opinion Bowdon’s documentary does contain flaws, as many documentaries that reveal such harsh truths about the American educational systems do. Beginning with clips of different people speaking on a number of things wrong with American school systems may be confusing for the viewer because they may not be presented with the main point of the film right away. However, I do believe that Bowdon does dive right in to his goals for the film after showing those clips, which were to make viewers aware of the corruption that takes place within school systems and between high ranking school officials.

The Cartel, Teacher unions are the enemy 0:36:30
The Cartel, Teacher unions are the enemy 0:36:30

To conclude the film Bowdon lists the many things wrong with the educational system; people think more money should be spent on education, but they don’t know where the money is going, teacher unions and teacher tenure help protect bad teachers and have only fired .03% of bad those teachers, to many people vouchers seem worse than illiteracy and drop out rates, and many more. Although it is true that The Cartel has many critics within local school boards and school legislatures, Bowdon gives evidence that proves all of his claims. Bowdon is trying to help viewers see that more emphasis should be placed on the betterment of the education of students and less on politics and the corrupt nature of the educational system that has prevailed over the past few decades in the United States. When the corruption ends, schools will improve.


Works Cited:

Gillespie, Nick. Reason TV. Reason Foundation. 2010

The Cartel, created and directed by Bob Bowdon. 2010.