A digestible lesson in public-school failures
In Bob Bowdon’s documentary, “The Cartel,’’ you can tell when an educational fact or statistic is important. A telestrator boxes or circles it. Or the narration takes advantage of rhetorical devices, telling us: let’s do this, or, if you look up that. The names of new chapters are scribbled on a cartoon chalkboard: “Unions,’’ “Patronage,’’ “Vouchers.’’ Actually, everything in Bowdon’s rant about America’s woeful public school system is important, including Bowdon.
By trade, Bowdon is a regional TV news reporter. And he has a nose for timely — or timeless — subjects. Public education budgets are shrinking. Classroom sizes are doubling. And teachers unions are fighting elected officials over merit-based pay. But as is the wont of certain TV news reporting, his approach pre-chews every detail, lest we fail to understand it. He’s smart. We’re dumb. Let the animated inserts explain the facts. The entire project is italicized and underlined. One of the first images he shows is a cartoon of the film’s title being pulled by “The Godfather’’ puppet strings.
Bowdon makes an insufferable first impression, and his movie often looks as if it were shot with a camera-phone (for good measure, he includes actual camera-phone footage, which admittedly looks worse than his). But it’s a testament to how fascinatingly bad things are for our public schools that “The Cartel’’ is as watchable as it is.
The movie bears down on New Jersey’s dysfunctional school system, which appears to have no shortage of corrupt officials. A few of their defenders take full advantage of the opportunity to incriminate themselves. One of the movie’s contentions is that the teachers union has an egregious self-interest in the struggle over reform; it opposes charter schools almost by default and fights to keep quantifiably abysmal teachers tenured. The union’s president says that bad teachers make mistakes but deserve due process before any termination.
Bowdon is a better reporter than he is a filmmaker. He can support most of his assertions and recognizes the sad comedy in how pitiful some of these administrators are. Bowdon is also currently a correspondent for the Onion’s news network, where he reports bogus stories in the name of satire. That doesn’t help his movie. “The Cartel’’ is hyperbolically righteous and archly condescending, to the point that you feel like Bowdon is putting us on (one nugget of information is so obvious, he says, that he can’t believe he needs to explain it). He’s not kidding. But the cartoon chalkboards and tsk-tsking tone are a joke.