"The Cartel" is a statistics-packed exposé of dismal public education in New Jersey (and by implication nationwide). TV newscaster Bob Bowdon presents a damning portrait of a state school system riddled with patronage jobs and a teachers' union so powerful that it is virtually impossible to fire incompetent tenured educators. Bowdon's film details a catalog of corruption, no-show jobs and financial chicanery that would make Tony Soprano envious.
Bowdon's film follows the standard TV journalism format, weaving news footage, interviews with public officials, teachers and parents, man-on-the-street sound bites and newspaper headlines into a persuasive case for reform.
Despite per-classroom expenditures of $313,000 or more, less than half of the state's eighth-graders are proficient in reading or math. Much of the money is absorbed by administrative expenses: One school-board secretary is paid $180,000 a year. The state's big school systems have become a place where politicians can run business scams and racial and ethnic groups can find jobs for their favorites.
There are plenty of legitimate grievances here, but like Michael Moore at his pushiest, Bowdon often undermines his own argument with obvious factual cherry-picking. He introduces the oddball story of a longtime teacher who concealed his own illiteracy as if it were indicative of some widespread issue; the fellow didn't teach in Jersey anyway.
At times, the film pushes Bowdon's preferred solution to the education mess, school vouchers, with the zealous intensity of an infomercial. He seems to have touched a nerve. Earlier this week New Jersey voters sent an unmistakable message, shooting down almost 60 percent of the state's school budgets.
The more you know about the cesspool of Jersey politics, however, the more bitterly ironic "The Cartel" becomes.
Bowdon credits interviewee Dara Rone, an ousted Newark City Council member, as if she were still in office. She criticizes overreaching politicos, though three court decisions found her guilty of intimidating police and obstructing justice in an investigation of her nephew. Her sentence included a lifetime ban from holding public office.
The Rev. Reginald T. Jackson, director of the New Jersey Black Ministers' Council, charges that teachers' union campaign contributions "buy the support of politicians." Jackson has been condemned by other black leaders for accepting $25,000 from Jon S. Corzine four months before endorsing him for U.S. Senate.
Democratic State Sen. Ray Lesniak presents himself as a rock-ribbed opponent of cronyism, charging that one school board "wastes millions on political ventures." Lesniak has admitted that his law firm collects millions of dollars for legal work for scores of New Jersey municipalities. Those contracts came after Lesniak offered campaign contributions and political support to the local officials who decide who will get the work.
It's easy to believe that in New Jersey corruption is so thick that Bowdon couldn't line up a slate of squeaky-clean talking heads. It's disappointing that he didn't come clean about it.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186