Is your school sub-par? Are costs for education still high? Bob Bowdon can connect the dots. And he can tell you a story about a janitor making a six-figure salary.
Bowdon is a documentary filmmaker from Hoboken. In “The Cartel,” he wants to show “How American public education primarily serves its employees, not its children.”
To build his point, he draws from a wide array of educational topics like the Abbott funding for poor districts; state blocking of charter schools, the demonizing of vouchers, and untouchable teacher tenure. And to prove a point, he even counts how many luxury cars are in a particular school’s parking lot. (Spoiler alert: 12.)
“I had intended to be more satirical, funnier in lampooning the excesses and failures of the system,” he said, “but the more I got into it, I realized I didn’t think it was funny.”
A rough cut of the film premiered at the Hoboken Film Festival, and the final version will be released theatrically later in the summer.
Behind the camera
Bowdon, who has also moderated Hoboken political debates, left his job as an anchor for Bloomberg Television to shoot “The Cartel,” which is his first feature length documentary. He spent the last two years driving up and down the Garden State searching for answers to the educational conundrum: how can so much money be spent with such minimal result?
He visited charter school lotteries where parents and children cried tears of joys and sorrow, depending on whose number was chosen.
He visited under-performing districts, sat with union leaders, elected officials, and school officials. He mined statistics and compiled charts and graphs, all to prove that the school system is in need of repair.
How did the school system come into his crosshairs?
He reported on a story about niche subject classes that were going to be taught in New Jersey high schools using closed circuit television, but he said, “The union killed [the classes].” He was dismayed that an opportunity to help children learn was turned on its head by teachers. “I was kind of shocked by that,” he said.
The union was not interested in the “economy of scale” that the service would have provided, Bowdon said, because it would have taken away jobs.
Then a friend was hired at an urban high school and gave him a glimpse into the inner goings-on of the institutions of education. “That was the final catalyst,” he said. “All of these anecdotal stories about policy, performance, tenure…no one had ever aggregated these to make a coherent picture.”
Fixing the system
Some of the issues that Bowdon dissects, like the Abbott program, have already been reformed by the state.
For years, the state was sending extra funding to 31 “Abbott” districts in cities that show they have extraordinary needs. Now, that funding is determined by the demographics of the public schools.
“These are real children whose lives are destroyed.” – Bob Bowdon
Other issues like the school voucher program are far from fixed.
“All it is is scholarships,” he explains. “Essentially [it’s] just government scholarships.”
Bowdon said the school reform movement is “nascent,” in other words newborn, and he hopes people start to understand that more than tax dollars are at stake.
“I feel a sense of a tipping point,” he said. “These are real children whose lives are destroyed.”
For screening updates or to sort through some of the data Bowdon uses in the film, visit www.thecartelmovie.com.
Timothy J. Carroll may be reached at email@example.com.