School Sucks: The Movie

A review of The Cartel, a documentary about school choice—and the lack thereof.

A Newark mother runs out of the room to shout "God is an awesome God!" toward the end of The Cartel, a new documentary about school choice. She bolts because she doesn't want to rub her good fortune in the faces of dozens of weeping children and stoic parents around her. Her child has just won, by lottery, a slot in Newark's acclaimed North Star Academy Charter school and thus escaped the state's (and nation's) expensive, execrable public schools. And so she celebrates. But as the lottery winds down and the organizers call out the 37th runner up, we see another mother, comforting a child with tears streaming down her face. She hasn't made the cut, and her kid is stuck.

The Cartel is a first film for Bob Bowdon, a TV journalist and occasional on-screen reporter for the satirical Onion News Network. As you might expect from an Onion reporter, Bowdon has a keen eye for the ridiculous—and the public school monopoly offers him a lot of material to work with. Focusing on New Jersey, which spends more per pupil than any other state, The Cartel contains the usual litany of massive spending, academic failure, administrative bloat, and corruption apparent to anyone who has scratched the surface of the nation's schools. But it also has some unusual moments, including a tally of luxury cars in the New Jersey Board of Education parking lot, and a casual revelation that dropout rates are so high that New Jersey ninth graders outnumber the state's 10th, 11th, and 12th graders put together.

One scene shows a debate hosted by the NAACP in which Walter Farrell—who travels around the country giving the same anti-voucher presentation to school boards, parents, and civic groups—offers a novel theory about the real purpose of vouchers. He throws up this quote from Milton Friedman, father of the school voucher:

it is essential that no conditions be attached to the acceptance of vouchers that interfere with the freedom of private enterprises to experiment.

And then he pulls out one word: Experiment. And there, written on his PowerPoint slide right below the Friedman quote, he makes this remarkable leap: This "experiment" is just like the Tuskegee experiment. White people are using black people to test out their theories, you see. Put more simply: Giving poor kids scholarships equals letting black men die of syphilis. (This same quote, with the same implication, although without the inflammatory Tuskegee reference, appears on the National Education Association site as part of their official "Case Against Vouchers.") He then goes on to show slides of other sinister white people who support vouchers. This line of argument was a particularly odd choice for the venue, since the person he was debating was none other than Rev. Reginald T. Jackson, executive director of the Black Ministers' Council of New Jersey. "It's as if that guy didn't realize he was debating another black guy," says Bowdon, laughing.

Another highlight of the film also yielded one of its earliest reviews. After The Cartel's debut at the Hoboken Film Festival, the New Jersey teacher's union issued a press release. They had little to say about the pacing or the camera work, but they did indulge in a little conspiracy theorizing. The press release promotes a "research paper"[PDF] about "the force" behind the film, pinpointing "the Los Angeles-based Moving Picture Institute, a renowned right-wing nonprofit organization" devoted to the obviously suspicious cause of “'protecting and sustaining a free society.'” Here's why the union is testy:

“The Cartel” includes footage of NJEA President Joyce Powell, who conducted an interview a year ago with a crew claiming it was doing an independent “documentary on public education in New Jersey,” with a focus on No Child Left Behind, the state school funding law, and charter schools. At no time did the crew identify its true agenda, nor who was funding its work.

In this, our post-Borat age, you'd think a quick Google search would be in order before agreeing to a sit-down interview on camera. Clearly that didn't happen until after the screening. Powell offers a load of laughs, including her apparently sincere belief that the union's defense of a teacher who hit a student in anger is justified because "Everyone deserves a second chance." The highlight, however, is when Bowdon points out the rate at which teachers are fired in New Jersey is an astonishingly low .03 percent. Powell bravely takes up the baton, asserting that the low firing rate simply corresponds to a high rate of excellent teachers. A 99.97 percent success rate, she says, is something to "celebrate."

Assembled on a shoestring budget, with support for distribution coming late in the process from the Motion Picture Institute (conspiracy!), the film is a bit rough around the edges, and could have been a half hour shorter. But it's an impressive achievement. "If you're a first time filmmaker and you have no track record, essentially nobody is going to give you the money," say Bowdon. But he has managed to produce an engaging, complete account of the arguments and relevant data in the fight over school choice. 

There are a few other "Life Imitates the Onion" moments in the film, but most of the facts and figures are far too ghastly to be funny. The litany of corruption and defeat is just a depressing reminder how rare salvation still is for kids stuck in the nation's abysmal public schools, even after decades of labor and—gasp!—experimentation by would-be school reformers.

The Cartel opens today in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and St. Louis.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Snaps McShitDo||

    Uhm, it only premiers in Houston today.

  • hmm||

    Ya,in STL April 30th.

  • ||

    What's worse, is it does not premier in New Jersey first.

  • ||

    Um, except for the Hoboken Film Festival.

    Not to self: RTFA first.

  • ||

    Be suspicious of the Charter School concept. Charters are simply public schools sans the union, the same laws affect them as do the publics. Insert "private" in the voucher system and you have it all. And don't get the vapors over the "parochial school" argument. Give the cash to the parent and let him shop. If it's a parochial he wants, a trade school, or Sharia, get out of the way. Real freedom.
    If you must mandate at all, mandate retention in math, science, english, et cet and test for it. Anything, everything else up for grabs. Real choice.
    My guess is, you'll have every wingnut school of choice, as it should be. But, you'll also have Corporate America attracted to the $7 - $9k/student carrot who'll really teach your brat, and make a profit from it.
    With PRIVATE as the key word, the school can send the dim, the incorrigible, the tardy, the special needs, home; can also mandate and require parental involvement.
    Horrors, here will the dim, the incorrigible, etc go????? To the public school, where they are now. This would not be the end of public education. There would still be that bastion for the incompetent and slothful teachers.

  • The Uknown Poster||

    "Charters are simply public schools sans the union"

    That's a feature not a bug.

  • ||

    Low hanging fruit.

  • The Uknown Poster||

    The lower the fruit, the sweeter the juice.

    My kid goes to a exceptional charter school (Montessori , Bill Gates funded) and if they had to cowtow to the unions, they sure as hell wouldn't be exceptional.

  • ||

    Instead they cowtow to government mandates. How much are they spending to comply with Special Needs legislation. Can they broom a disruptive student? Is physical excercise (recess time) mandated? Can they mandate parental involvement?

    Think how much more exceptional they could be.

  • The Uknown Poster||

    Frankly, I don't give a shit. My kid is getting an exceptional education at the school of my choice.

    But since you asked...

    "How much are they spending to comply with Special Needs legislation?"

    I'll have to look that up and get back to you.

    "Can they broom a disruptive student?"

    If by broom you mean hit the kid with a broom, then no, but if you mean kick the kid out, then yes. Public schools expel kids too.

    "Is physical excercise (recess time) mandated?"

    Yes. They also go on annual byccle rides that cover more than 100 miles over the course of several days.

    "Can they mandate parental involvement?" Yes. And they do. And if your kid is late to school more than twice during the year, they get booted.

    This is a school that melds highly motivated students, highly motivated parents, highly motivated teachers and a highly motivated administration.

  • ||

    Frankly, I don't give a shit. My kid is getting an exceptional education at the school of my choice.

    The first statement applies to the second. Yeah, right, your child is getting an excellent education from ANY public school. Of course, if your standards are low enough then it CAN be called "exceptional".

    My brother tried this line with me. Of course, a brief discussion with his children about geography and history indicated that it was not the case.

    Sure hope it is different for you.

  • The Uknown Poster||

    "Sure hope it is different for you."

    Thank you; it is.

  • ||

    Where do I start. From the beginning.
    Yes, get back to me. Include mandated special needs training for teachers and staff. If they'll give you a peek at the books, find out how much the state sent them to "up grade facilities for special needs" too. An eye opener.
    Broom. Sweep clean. Not expel them. Fire them...permanently. No return. Ever. We prefer not to serve you. No court case, no hearing, no nothing. Here is your unused portion of your voucher, see ya.
    Why yis the phys ed time MANDATED? Perhaqps the minutes could better used TEACHING.
    You've got me on this one. A charter school that mandates parental involvement (not tardiness) is one third year law student away from a hefty settlement.

    You sound satisfied. Lucky you. Now, how about spreading that around. Lets make a stab at schools like yours from the inner city to the reservation.

  • GORGES||

    stfu kmw i went to public school in east brunswick new jersey and i can evem read and type and use excel spreedsheets. i am good job and i make plenty of money and my mom is a school teacher who does a good job too.

    why do you want to ruin a system that is doing me fine? is it because you hate seeing union worksers being successful? people on this sight are so self centered i am going to be sick.

  • Zenmaster||

    Currently live in New Jersey, and honestly, I can't tell if you are serious or just being facetious.

  • ||

    If they don't teach you how to spell, they should at least teach you how to use spellcheck or a dictionary. Of course that doesn't work for the homonym challenged.

  • ||

    Pretty good fake troll, with the bad spelling and capitalization!

  • ||

    LOL, wow you got that right! Well done.

    Lou
    www.anonymous-vpn.tk

  • jacob||

    we see another mother, comforting a child with tears streaming down her face.

    What is she crying about? That her broke-ass parents can't get her a real education without handouts?

  • ||

    Hard to know if the parents are broke-ass due to some government intervention in the economy or their own failings. At least they give a shit. That's a step in the right direction.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Fuckin' A. I would guess that the mom wants her kid to get out of a dysfunctional neighborhood, and saw one of the best chances disappear right before her eyes. It's a lot easier to work your way out of a bad situation when you can read, write, and do math. And it's a lot easier to do those things when you go to schools run by people who give a shit.

  • ||

    At least they are trying.

  • jacob||

    Apparently you know absolutely nothing about Newark or its population. I can guarantee you this is due to their own failings.

  • Kroneborge||

    I'd cry too if I was stuck in those crummy schools.

  • ||

    and a casual revelation that dropout rates are so high that New Jersey ninth graders outnumber the state's 10th, 11th, and 12th graders put together.

    That can't be right. Can it?

  • ||

    I had the same thought. Not statewide.
    Detroit's dropout rate isn't even that bad.

  • ||

    I can't find statewide numbers by grade, but even looking at some cities here: http://www.state.nj.us/educati.....county.htm , it doesn't seem to be remotely true.

  • ||

    ...expensive, excretable public schools

    You first, KM-W, I want to see you pass (excrete) a NJ public school...

    Now if you meant execrable, that would make sense.

  • ||

    She'll need A LOT of prune juice for that Tonio.

  • DMCollins||

    Fully Vouchered, Parent Qualified Education: Fully Vouchered means all schools including public schools, work off of vouchers. Parent Qualified means that the parents decide if a school is qualified to teach their children. There is only one other standard and that is that a school must have at least 30 pupils. There are zero other qualifications. The state has no say in the qualifications of the school. The school does not have to hire teachers with special educational qualifications or unionized people. The sole determinate of qualification of the school is that the parents choose to take their children there. Remember this phrase: Fully Vouchered, Parent Qualified Education.

  • ||

    How I love you.

  • Kroneborge||

    Good stuff, although kids from any school should still be subject to the same standized test, that way parents can see what they are getting for their/your money.

    After all, you need transparency and accountabilty to make choice work.

  • Joe||

    Any involved parent should be able to see if they are getting theie money's worth from their child's education without the child having to take a state-mandated one-size-fits-all test.

  • Kroneborge||

    Not always. If the kid it taking algebra (or calculus) and the parent never took that, how would they evaluate?

    Also just looking at the grades isn't enough, we know grade inflation can be a problem.

  • Chris||

    The big problem with standardized tests is that it only tests how well one does on standardized tests. It is not a gauge of learning or intelligence.

  • cynical||

    He really brought up the Tuskegee experiment?

    Given the Tuskegee experiment involved finding black people with a pre-existing problem, and then preventing them from getting what known at the time to be an effective treatment for that problem, aren't the people campaigning against school vouchers the equivalent of the Tuskegee experimenters?

    I kinda hope he did know that and was silently, malevolently laughing at his audience.

  • Jennifer||

    This "experiment" is just like the Tuskegee experiment. White people are using black people to test out their theories, you see. Put more simply: Giving poor kids scholarships equals letting black men die of syphilis.

    Anecdotes are not data, but in my state, at least, a voucher system would help a hell of a lot more black kids than white; the overwhelming majority of white kids in the state live in suburbs with good school systems, whereas the black kids mostly attend shitty inner-city schools. If ANYBODY is going to criticize vouchers on the grounds "It'll hurt my racial brothers," it's the white supremacists over at Stormfront.

  • ||

    Anecdotes aside, give a Google to the Charter school "experiment" in D.C., the results they achieved, and the decision by Congress to discontinue such.

  • AJs||

    The voucher debate has always been curious and ironic to me mainly because of the alliances it tends to draw. On the one hand, those who typically support voucher are those who would normally oppose the government giving out money to subsidize. And those opposing vouchers tend to be the same groups advocating for more subsidies.

    In the end, I am okay with government facilitating making more choices available to all children (which is what vouchers basically do).

  • BakedPenguin||

    Well, if you keep in mind that vouchers are meant to replace mandated direct spending by the government, it becomes a bit clearer.

  • ||

    Moreover, vouchers disrupt the money trail (mandated spending) from government to..well..more government. Vouchers take the government largess and put it in the hands of a consumer, who is THEN able to spend it accordingly. Ergo: accountability

  • Barry Loberfeld||

    Not to interrupt this thread BUT ... there is an active thread worthy of attention about RAND Paul here.

  • ||

    Not for me. Frontpagemag was my homepage for several years.

    Then they actually posted a video of Arianna Huffington and Keith Olbermann discussing "Obama derangement syndrome" as if opposition to that turd wasn't based upon his shit ideology but his "race". Horowitz blogged the same thing, endlessly. He then repeated, ad nausem, that the financial meltdown wasn't the governments fault. I rarely visit there anymore.

  • ||

    Geez, can we do something about the pingback spam...?

  • Chad||

    Libertarians, like always, miss the obvious: there isn't much meaningful "school choice" until there is a transportation system that can support it. Until then, kids are bound more by geography than they are any laws restricting which schools they can attend.

    As long as "school choice" is tethered to "mom or dad who has a couple free hours every day to drive the kids to the right school", its adoption will always be trivial.

  • ||

    Liberals, however, miss reality. Before there were schools, there were... schools. Parochial (private) schools provided the education for the entire couintry. Some are still there. They indicate school begins at eight AM. Have your brat there, with a lunch. How tough is that?? Schools should have never been in the business of carting your spawn, or feeding him.

  • Involved Parent||

    Imagine parents that are willing to make sacrifices to get a good education for their children. Personally, I send my son to a private school that costs more per month than my mortgage and my wife's car payment combined (not to mention the taxes I pay for some other kid's education). We decided to make that sacrifice when it became obvious that the public school had abandoned our son's education. I have been forced to work a second job at times to make sure that education was paid for while for the past several years my wife has added around two additional hours of commute time...all to make it happen.

    So I think sacrificing some drive time to get your kid to a decent school would be a worthy investment or in the case of many of these urban areas some bus time for the kids would be worth the outcome.

  • jacob||

    Wouldn't it be nice if some ghetto dwellers who don't work would get vouchers so they could send their kids to your son's school?

  • Involved Parent||

    Since we are committed in this country to providing "free" public education, I don't see an issue with it. Publicly funded vouchers would benefit the working and the non-working alike. I would also have access to those same vouchers as would any parent who wants a better education for their child.

    As for them going to my son's school. As long as they are willing to abide by the high standards the school demands of the students and parents, then I don't care who the school admits.

    Those in the inner-cities and at the bottom rungs of society are not the people that frustrate me the most when it comes to the public/private school debate. It is the middle-class parents who would rather blow their income on an over-sized house, new cars, a boat, cable television, expensive cell phone plans, and eating out every night, then bitch to me that they can't afford to send their kid(s) to a private school that get me enraged.

  • jacob||

    Publicly funded vouchers would benefit the working and the non-working alike.

    And thus the problem with vouchers. If vouchers equally benefit the people who pay for them or those who get them for free, they are simply another form of handouts. I'm not saying public schools are the answer, but a more logical solution would be to scrap public education all together, and force private schools to take low-income kids. After all, that's what vouchers are.

  • jacob||

    errr....not force private schools, but have the state reimburse them for the non-paying students. Much like hospitals.

  • Involved Parent||

    Like many Libertarians I believe there are proper roles for the Government and providing for an educated populace (I believe) is one of those roles (granted local Government, not Federal).

    Vouchers, and when I say vouchers I am refering to a simple lump sum of money that follows the child with no strings attached, are no different than reimbursing a school for a student. Ideally vouchers would have no means testing and be a flat sum of money.

    As for the handout argument...any service the Government provides at a cost that is less than the actual cost of the service is a handout, but I personally would not view providing for the education of my community as a 'handout' any more than I would begrudge my community 'free' policing or other appropriate Government services.

  • jacob||

    I personally would not view providing for the education of my community as a 'handout'

    I would disagree, just the same as I don't agree with universal health care. Would you begrudge your community healthcare?

  • Chad||

    Involved: Wouldn't it be a thousand times easier and cheaper to simply move to a district with a good school. I live in the suburbs of a midwestern city, and it is not challenging at all to find $80,000 condos or $150,000 3br/2ba homes in either of the two best school districts in the metro area, which are both ranked in the top 10 for the state.

    It sounds like you are wasting massive amounts of time and money.

  • Involved Parent||

    There is not a public school that provides the level of education equal to that which my son's school provides. There are several good public schools locally, but not a single one provides the type of environment that you will find at the best private schools.

    I could easily 'move' to a suburb where I doubled or tripled my mortgage payment and paid more property taxes, but the level of education would still be inferior to the school that I quite carefully picked out for my son.

  • Involved Parent||

    A quality private education is much like buying a quality wine or spirit. You may know intellectually that a fine wine is better and you may be happy with the cheap and easy to get alchohol that you have at hand. You don't really understand the subtle differences and improvements that a quality alchohol provides until you have tried it.

    A good private school is the same way. I knew intellectually that my son would get a better education than what he was getting at the public schools, but it was not until I had experienced the difference that I truly saw exactly what a profound difference it makes.

    *Of course there are bad private schools and no school can overcome a student who refuses to learn, but believe me there is nothing like chosing a quality private education for your child.

  • Chad||

    I disagree with you completely. The difference between your average school and an elite one has little or nothing to do with the "education" your kids receive. Rather, it has almost everything to do who your kids will be educated alongside (other rich kids, with a smattering of smart kids from not-so-rich but highly motivated parents). This is also the difference between Directional State U and Harvard, MIT, etc. The latter don't have some secret sauce in their chemistry or literature courses. They simply provide your children, if they get in, with the opportunity to become friends with young people who will in many cases become successful and powerful. THAT is what you are buying when you shell out a fortune for your kids to go to such schoools.

    You are paying a lot of money to play a zero-sum game. The rich and highly motivated want to keep the riff-raff out so that their kids are educated alongside other children like themselves. This is good for these kids, and bad for the rest.

    I'll do it the easy way: live in a good school district. Not only that, but the particular part of town I plan to buy in is within walking distance of all three schools my children will attend. With the fortune of time and money I will save with respect to you, I will easily be able to provide opportunities for my children that you cannot, that will more than offset whatever advantage you think your superior "education" brings.

  • Chad||

    In any case, you missed my original point entirely. "School choice" is not very meaningful if it requires parents who have both the motivation and the time to drag the kids all around the area each day.

    I am thinking of this in the context of other countries which have excellent public transportation systems. For example, I am very familiar with Japan, where almost any middle-school or high-school student has a choice of dozens of schools, because they are able to get to them by train or bus within a reasonable time frame.

  • jacob||

    I have a hard time believing private schools provide a 'better' education than a good public school district. Equal, probably, but it's hard to say that private schools are unequivocally better. I went to a Catholic school (that had a yearly tuition that was higher than my parents' mortgage) and found that the classes I was offered were no different that kids in the public schools in the 'nicer' neighborhoods. Interestingly, 3 of the 5 kids who graduated at the top of my med school class went to public schools.

  • ||

    Perhaps Chad you can invent some time matter transportation device. Or maybe parents who live in the HOOD should move the fuck out of there

  • ||

    look i know reason is getting the koch subsidy. but, please quit paying lip service to paul ryan. he voted for the patriot act and the iraq war. he was part of the gop establishment. reason keeps losing credibility when it embraces these asshole politicians like paul ryan. i'm sure the the neocon koch brothers are putting you up to this! fight the power!

  • ||

    PLEASE UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES VISIT ONE OF PINGBACK'S WEBSITES

  • B||

    Walter Farrell pitched the "Tuskegee" analogy to the NAACP not DESPITE the audience being black, but BECAUSE of it.

    You have to remember that Walter Farrell is an educator, and as such he thinks he is smarter than everyone else and if he uses big words like "experiment" ordinary people will role over and accept whatever he says the proper conclusion is. But since Walter Farrell is an educator, he is actually quite a bit more stupid than the stupid average, and he didn't realize that the directorship of the NAACP know a few big words themselves, and actually know what they mean (which he does not).

  • B||

    I recently heard that one voucher program (I think maybe in Michigan) found a huge difference between students who received vouchers after winning a lottery, and students who received vouchers just for asking for them. Accounting for differences such as motivation, the results were still worse when many kids got vouchers.

    I don't know if this is true or not, though it was from a reputable source. But if true, I do have one explanation: kids learn as much or more from their peers as they do from their teachers. A few disadvantaged students can merge into an established system, but a large influx of disadvantaged kids will either swamp the system, or having more students like them to hang out with will tend to avoid the peers who might teach them.

    Of course, this also points to a problem with age-segregated schools. One room schoolhouses actually have a better record of educating students, in part because students can learn from each other - and students who teach their younger classmates learn the lessons better than if they learned it only for their own sake.

    The idea of age segregation in schools is disturbing enough, but America has adopted a kind of age segregation of all society that is detrimental to society. Any men who value their freedom and security have pretty much abandoned children altogether, due to reasonable concerns that they will be branded as some sort of abuser if they interact with children in any meaningful way. As a result, the younger generation is unable to access the intelligence and wisdom of their elders - to the great benefit of the State which wishes to keep the subjects ignorant and unable to oppose them. Truly an ingenious method to keep the people servile.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Holy fuck, these pingbacks. Get rid of that shit, I frankly wouldn't give a fuck what opinions another web site has about a reason article, if those were actual legitimate web sites and not spam bullshit that the pingback links to.

  • mizuna||

    Didn't one of the Founding Fathers refer to the new country as a "Great Experiment"?

    Didn't realize we are all subjects in The Man's giant Petri dish!

  • tony||

    emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
    none but ourselves can free our minds!

    I think John Taylor Gatto would approve!

  • ||

    It baffles me that ordinary people don't see how utterly absurd the entire premise of these "lotteries" is. Both ridiculous and pathetic at the same time. The entire public education system needs to be totally dismantled and replaced with nothing.

    No offense to anyone on here, but you'd have to be fucking nuts to let your kid go anywhere near a government/union/idiot run public school. Even if I'm poor as hell, I'll do whatever I can to scrounge up the cash to send them somewhere decent.

    WHere I live in South Carolina, we've got one of the worst systems in the country...yet for some reason there are hundreds of well off people I know of who send their kids to public schools when they could easily put them in a private school. They read the local paper and believe the propaganda about whatever bullshit new program they're starting up at the local school. Unbelievable.

  • ||

    School vouchers are worse than food stamps because they will be used to increase government control over private schools. Everything the state subsidizes it will control. Thus if you support vouchers then you support increasing the power of the state over private institutions.

    Are you against redistributing income or do you just look for a "better" way to do it? How can you be against food stamps and health care stamps, but for school stamps?

    Vouchers increase the cost of private education just like all other state subsidies and interventions do.

    Finally, choosing students by lottery? Merit means nothing? Winners and losers chosen at random by bureaucrats; what could possibly be wrong with that?

    We need a separation of school and state, not marriage counseling for the happy couple.

  • jane||

    helpful story

  • charms||

    Thanks for sharing a nice post.

  • Scarpe Nike||

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  • sd||

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