THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

‘The Cartel’ sees teacher unions’ grip as crippling

Bob Bowdon, writer and director of “The Cartel,’’ his first film. Bob Bowdon, writer and director of “The Cartel,’’ his first film. (Emily Schlipf)
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / April 25, 2010

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When “The Cartel’’ opens Friday in the Boston area, it will take aim at what its creator calls the most important story in the country, one that the last person featured in his 90-minute documentary says is a greater threat to American civilization than terrorism.

It’s not the implosion of the financial system, the runaway national debt, or ideology-driven paralysis in Washington. The threat, instead, is the state of the nation’s public schools, and the powerful teacher unions that “The Cartel’’ believes are sabotaging the future.

It’s a subject that is familiar to countless parents, public officials, and even casual observers of the sausage-making of municipal government. But in “The Cartel,’’ a debut film by former television reporter Bob Bowdon, the causes and consequences of the failings of public education are chronicled in extraordinary detail.

Hideously low test scores in reading and math. Impenetrable obstacles to removing poor teachers. Insidious corruption and the related waste of massive amounts of taxpayer money. All this toxic fallout, Bowdon says, is the byproduct of an American education system that leads the world in per-pupil spending, yet lags many countries in performance.

The result, according to “The Cartel,’’ will be a national train wreck engineered by a woefully unprepared workforce. For Bowdon, who says he became bored reciting earnings reports on Bloomberg Television, “it struck me that this issue needed the long-form kind of treatment that a documentary could provide.’’

“The Cartel,’’ however, is more than a treatment. It’s a full-frontal assault, almost three years in the making, on the teacher unions and administrators whom Bowdon sees as stubborn stranglers of innovation. In his view, tenure often trumps learning, and the amalgamation of power can be a union’s top priority.

“I simply couldn’t believe how in modern America someone would, by the age of 25, be guaranteed a job for life unless they killed someone,’’ Bowdon said in a recent interview with the Globe.

In “The Cartel,’’ Bowdon’s specific target is the public school system in New Jersey, which he says spends more per pupil than any other state. But the darts are applicable across the country, he asserts, and he hopes their sting will awaken a sleeping public. In New England, the stunning recent decision in Central Falls, R.I., to fire all the teachers and staff at its underperforming high school is a reminder that Bowdon’s story reverberates outside his New Jersey home. Despite a volatile national controversy over the Central Falls firings, Superintendent Frances Gallo stuck fast to her decision. The union agreed to return to the table, this time with a federal mediator present, and discussions have resumed.

“The other side likes to pretend this absurd fiction that if you criticize the system at all, you must hate the system and that all teachers are terrible,’’ said Bowdon, whose mother was a public school teacher. “It’s such a dumb attack on the education reform crowd. I’m sick of that whole implication.’’

That “other side,’’ according to Bowdon, includes teacher unions and complicit elected school officials, who he argues are prone to placing self-interest ahead of the welfare of the students, particularly pupils from poor, urban districts where shoddy education can be a life sentence for failure.

But Joyce Powell, president of the New Jersey teachers union, counters that argument in the film by depicting public school educators as caring, committed, and unfairly caricatured by their critics.

“It’s real easy to stereotype the union, you know, as kind of the big, bad wolf,’’ Powell says. “In most cases, the union is extremely supportive to ensuring that we have students who are successful.’’

Bowdon, however, pillories the tenure process as an incentive for mediocrity. What business owner, he asked in our interview, would say to an employee, “I hope you keep working hard but, by the way, no matter what you do, I’ll never fire you.’’

“What small-business person would make that announcement?’’ Bowdon said. “It’s such a preposterous thing.’’

The issue reached an emotional crescendo recently in Florida, where Governor Charlie Crist (a candidate for Senate), influenced by overwhelming opposition by teachers in the state, vetoed a bill that would have eliminated tenure and tied teacher pay and jobs to student performance.

Back in New Jersey, “The Cartel’’ overlays test scores — 39 percent reading proficiency for eighth-graders; 40 percent for math — with budget analysis that shows taxpayers spending an average of more than $300,000 for every high-school classroom in the city of Paterson. Ninety cents on every education dollar goes for expenses outside teacher salaries, Bowdon says in the film. There are “low-show’’ workers to pay; 400 school administrators in Newark who make more than $100,000 each; and a school board secretary for the Hudson County School of Technology who is paid $180,000.

In 2006, according to the documentary, not one of 10,000 teachers in Bergen County had been fired through the tenure-hearing process for at least a decade. “It is virtually impossible to fire a teacher,’’ says Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, who was interviewed for the film.

State leaders cower at the power of the union, according to “The Cartel,’’ and politically connected teachers make life miserable for any superintendent who dares to push for longer workdays or other disruptions to the comfortable status quo. Beverly Jones, who was selected New Jersey’s best history teacher in 2004, is held up as a rare teacher with the courage to blow the whistle. In 2005, Jones says, she saw “ghost salaries’’ in the Trenton school budget and discovered that some students had been wrongfully held back, in a bit of mini-empire-building, to pad the rolls of a ninth-grade repeater program.

“The children are not the focus; money is the focus,’’ Jones says on camera. “And what happens to the money, no one knows.’’

“The Cartel’’ leads its audience to what Bowdon sees as a promised land of better American education, populated by vouchers and charter schools. With vouchers, parents can spend their tax dollars at private schools that might offer a better and safer education. At state-supported charter schools, which generally operate independently of local districts, parents and children have an alternative to a traditional school that might be a no-progress treadmill to failure. In either scenario, the film argues, poorly performing public schools will be subject to desperately needed competition.

Opponents of charter schools, however, often are just as adamant that these parallel institutions siphon badly needed money away from public schools that most need the funding. For the children who remain in traditional public education, they argue, those pupils face yet another obstacle in a daunting string of them. In Massachusetts, an expansion of charter schools is underway even as the review process has come under fire by critics who question the level of scrutiny that applicants receive.

Bowdon concedes that the core message of “The Cartel’’ is not new. But when viewers at advance screenings have been confronted with a back-story of union politics and power-hoarding, he says, the anger is palpably raw.

“They’re outraged,’’ Bowdon said. “They want to light the torches, get the pitchforks, and form a posse.’’

He’d be happy to see that posse grow with every screening.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.

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