The Cartel

Movie review: 'The Cartel,' trying to educate us on the state of U.S. schools

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010

Television news reporter Bob Bowdon says he was compelled to make the documentary "The Cartel," a critical look at public education in America, because the story, in his words, "had never been told." Apparently, he didn't see the "20/20" episode called "Stupid in America."

Or maybe he did.

Bowdon's film has a lot of similarities with the Jan. 13, 2006, ABC News report (available on YouTube), in which co-anchor John Stossel blamed teachers' unions, as well as the entrenched public-school bureaucracy, for the sorry state of our nation's public schools. According to both men's reports, unions and school systems are the bad guys -- Bowdon calls them a cartel; Stossel a monopoly -- for their perceived opposition to such things as school choice and teacher accountability. It's a story that's much in the local news these days, as D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee continues to butt heads with union leaders, the bureaucrats who work for her and the D.C. Council over her campaign to improve the District's public schools.

So the question is this: Does anyone really need to see "The Cartel"? Well, maybe if you like to get really, really angry about school janitors who make six-figure salaries or teachers who abuse kids but can't be fired. Or maybe if you just crawled out from under a rock and still think things are fine just the way they are.

Bowdon is smart, and, like Stossel, he throws a sharp elbow. He's no Michael Moore, though. The film -- for which Bowdon directed, wrote, narrated, produced, operated a camera, composed music and sang -- spends a little too much time on static shots of flickering computer screens filled with gray text, and it has the look of cheap video. His most effective storytelling comes when he trains his camera on the expectant faces of people waiting for the results of a New Jersey charter-school lottery. ("The Cartel" addresses a national problem, but it takes the Garden State as a paradigm of public-school failure. It's the state with the highest average per-student spending, yet with some of the worst test scores to show for it.)

Bowdon's central points seem like common sense. School choice is good. Competition for students makes for better schools all around. Throwing money at the problem doesn't solve anything. And it ought to be easier to get rid of bad teachers and to reward good ones.

But those arguments pale in comparison with the tears we see on the faces of those folks at the lottery. In the case of those who got in, they're tears of joy; for those who didn't, tears of disappointment. Nothing -- neither Bowdon's facts and figures, nor all his talking heads -- drives home the point better that people are desperate to escape a system that has failed them.

"Stupid in America" included similar footage of jubilant and crushed lottery applicants, only at a different charter school somewhere in America. Which just goes to show you how little has changed since 2006. And maybe, just maybe, how much we still need people like Bob Bowdon.

** Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains nothing objectionable. 102 minutes.

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