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.