Bob Bowdon & The Cartel

Cartel director Bob Bowden

Cartel director Bob Bowdon

Bob Bowdon, a veteran broadcaster, decided after doing several stories centering on the New Jersey Public Education system that enough was enough.

Along with his experiences and those of a friend who changed jobs from journalist to school teacher, Bowdon decided that it was time to chronicle what he saw in a documentary.

The result, made over two years and on Bowdon’s own bank account, is The Cartel, a powerful account of mismanagement, overspending and intimidation prevalent in America’s education system—with New Jersey as the prime example cited for all of these ills.

During a recent stop to Philadelphia, Bowdon, who is next producing and hosting a PBS series in which teams debate each other on controversial topics, discussed the film’s journey to theaters and his thoughts about a broken education system which sends people out of high school illiterate, has three-quarters of college level kids unable to find Middle Eastern countries on a map and ranks 474th in the world in math scores.

Movie FanFare: You use New Jersey as an example of a failed education system. What can the country learn from the mistakes New Jersey has made?

Bob Bowdon: New Jersey has been the biggest spending state. What everyone can learn is that money doesn’t equal quality. There are inputs people and outputs people. (The state says): “We must be for education because we spent so much.”  Everybody knows you can hire a bunch of people and have them sit around and fill out forms and it doesn’t affect a kid’s learning. So I know the issues are the same all over. New Jersey is our case study and preaches that if you think throwing money is the answer, think again.

MFF: Has New Jersey Governor John Corzine seen this?

BB: I haven’t offered to show it to him because I presumed if he wanted to see it, he’d find a way.

MFF: What triggered this project?

BB: I’ve been a TV reporter that covered educational stories. There were these anecdotal stores that were not connected. An outrage here, or a terrible principal there, or millions of dollars disappear somewhere else. What had not been done is tell the story in one picture with all of these comparisons in the movie and how there are higher budgets with no increase in performance by education to the students. On TV, we’ve seen some of the individual stories.

The final catalyst was my friend, a TV producer who got a job as an inner city high school English teacher.  I said, “This has got to be a documentary. There’s too much here.” Leaving aside whether I am great or terrible as a filmmaker, this kind of expose has never been done before. Maybe there is some obscure film out there that someone will present to me. But as far as I know it hasn’t been done, even though education is one of the key topics in the country, without sounding too grandiose. So the catalyst was my friend who was an English teacher.

MFF: Even though you had some prominent education figures appear in the film, did you find many people reticent to speak to you abut this subject on-camera?

BB: There are people all the time who come to me at film festivals who are outraged and tell me their personal stories. I ask them if they would do it on camera, and they say “No, I can’t do it on camera.” They may be in the union, or their spouse may work for a school. They are afraid to speak out. You don’t have to scratch the surface too far to know there are people afraid to speak out. Call up six people and ask them to speak their mind and you’ll learn there are fear and intimidation in something as innocuous and wholesome as the public school system. That said, nonetheless we also did get a lot of people (to speak).

MFF: You focused primarily on schools in troubled cities like Camden, Newark and Trenton, but isn’t there another story to tell from other schools in more settled neighborhoods?

BB: I am interested in improving public policies and I think the film goes to where the need is greatest. There are stories—of which there are many and we could have easily done—it would have taken time away from the real disasters going on elsewhere. If we looked at the other schools, then people may say it’s steady as she goes. But it is a red alert disaster in some of these worst schools, so for me to profile the happy, it didn’t make sense.

MFF: The Cartel is quite critical of the teachers unions’ role in the problems as you show them protecting bad teachers and principals and other acts that are harmful to a child’s education.

BB: We take great pains to distinguish teachers unions with other kinds of unions. When GM negotiates with the United Auto Workers, UAW doesn’t have a strong hand in running General Motors, who they are negotiating with. But the teachers unions have a huge hand in selecting who they give money to for the school board. Then the school board selects the superintendent with whom they negotiate. So they create a scenario where the superintendent with whom they agree is the one who gets appointed by school board members seated through elections they have helped financed. It’s a different kind of union then every other union in the country.

I believe in schools where the parent can leave their kid in a union school that could be their choice, or if they want to put their kid in a private school that doesn’t have a union, that should be their choice. If a private school decides to unionize its teachers, then that should be their choice. I am not pro- or anti- union philosophically, as long as there is choice. The problem is if there is a monopoly and there is only one choice, and you have to go there if you are a poor person. That’s where the problem comes from.