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The Cartel (Bowdon Media, NR)

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It’s too bad The Cartel is not a better film: trotting out examples of corruption and highlighting the achievements of a few charter schools does not promote understanding.

 The Cartel, a documentary by former Bloomberg Television reporter Bob Bowdon, takes on the New Jersey public schools and finds them wanting. Furthermore, he finds the Garden State to be a swamp of corruption and that very corruption to be a contributing cause to the high cost and low results of the New Jersey public school system.

If I were Louis Renault I might declare myself shocked shocked shocked that there is corruption in New Jersey or that not everyone taking money from the school system is concerned solely with the welfare of innocent children. If you find yourself in a similar state of innocence you’ll probably love The Cartel. On the other hand, if (like me when I’m not pretending to be a character in Casablanca) you know something about the subject, let alone about education in general, you will more likely find yourself annoyed by this documentary’s similarity to a series of television segments pasted together and stretched out to 90 minutes, full of talking heads and “man on the street” interviews augmented by cute graphics. Education is a serious issue, as is political corruption, and both deserve a more serious consideration than is provided in The Cartel.

Take the example of school vouchers which some (including this film) offer as a potential solution to poorly-performing public schools. If you knew nothing about education but what you learned from The Cartel you might leave the theatre with the impression that vouchers are a new idea and haven’t gotten a fair trial due to the machinations of teachers’ unions and corrupt politicians. In fact, more than 10 years of research into the effectiveness of school voucher programs is readily available for scrutiny and they’ve proven to be far from a panacea (although of course there are individual programs and schools which are successful): many studies have found achievement overall no better in voucher schools than in ordinary public schools in the same area. But even more interesting than a global judgment on voucher programs would have been an examination of when they were successful and when not—but that would require real research rather than a steady string of speculations and interview clips.

Too much of The Cartel is taken up with “gotcha” moments and catchy anecdotes—a pricey new football field for an inner-city school, janitors making six-figure salaries and putting their wives on the payrolls, teachers who abuse students yet can’t be fired. The problem is that while it’s easy to point out examples of waste and corruption in any large organization (the Pentagon is probably still overpaying for hammers and the New York City police department is probably still paying patrolmen to paint sawhorses) doing anything about it is a much more difficult proposition.

There’s also a lack of perspective and context. For instance, many countries establish educational standards at the national level and enforce them through promotion exams, whereas in the U.S. for constitutional reasons this is left to the states. Many Americans place a high value on local control but they should be aware that our system promotes the kind of shenanigans seen in the “No Child Left Behind” program (setting standards so low that nearly anyone can pass) as well as the type of corruption exposed in The Cartel (if you know your students will not be evaluated according to a national standard, it’s easier to get away with not educating them). Another question which would have enriched the discussion would be an examination of successful public school systems (which exist even in New Jersey): how do they differ from those which are failing? Do they spend less, or more? What other factors seem to be influential?

It’s too bad The Cartel is not a better film, because many people (myself included) are concerned about the state of education in the U.S. But trotting out examples of corruption, however egregious, and highlighting the achievements of a few charter schools (since students must apply to attend those schools, you may assume that they and their parents have an above-average interest in education) does not promote understanding.

Postscript: as is my usual practice, I wrote this review based on my reaction to the film itself. However due to the overtly tendentious nature of The Cartel it’s worth looking a little more closely at who’s behind it. The Cartel is described on its distributor’s web page as “A Bowden Media Production In Association with The Moving Picture Institute” (www.trulyindie.com/ti/thecartelmoviecs.htm) and on The Cartel’s own web page (www.thecartelmovie.com/) you are invited to make contributions through the Moving Picture Institute (MPI). So who is the MPI?

The MPI (www.thempi.org/) was founded in 2005 by Thor Halvorssen and receives funding from a variety of right-wing sources including several involved in promoting school vouchers and aiming to reduce the influence of the National Educational Association (a labor union which includes school teachers, secretaries and support personnel). You can read more about the MPI’s funding at www.antifascistencyclopedia.com/allposts/the-cartel%E2%80%9D-the-moving-picture-institute-and-who-is-behind-it.

The MPI’s mission (in their own words, quoting from the MPI web site) is to nurture filmmakers “who are committed to protecting and sustaining a free society.” In case you don’t know how to interpret the coded language, topics covered by films funded or promoted by the MPI include “the repressive climate on our nation's college campuses” and “environmental activism's role in perpetuating Third World poverty.” Among the films they have fostered are the documentary feature Indoctrinate U which (again in their own words) “reveals a campus culture in which speech codes rule the day; in which free inquiry has been replaced with prescribed, politically correct values; and in which students are taught not how to think, but what to think” and a series of documentary shorts Free Market Cure which “educates the American public about the dangerous fantasy of a single-payer system.” | Sarah Boslaugh

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