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Tough Lessons Regarding The Collapsing Of The Public Schools

freecompress public schoolThe current education method in America is working aptly, says Bob Bowdon, but only for some — and those few surely aren’t the students. In his education docudrama “The Cartel,” Bowdon, a TV news reporter in New Jersey, paints a terrific ugly scene of the institutional degeneracy that has resulted in pretty much incredible wastes of taxpayer money. It’s not operose for Bowdon to illustrate that something’s terribly awry with a state that pays $17,000 per pupil but can only manage a 39% reading proficiency rate — that there’s a crisis is undeniable, how to deal with it is another question altogether.

On the one side is the monumental Jersey teachers union and shadowy school officials, who guarantee that, as Bowdon points out in his movie, 90 cents of every tax dollar go for other expenses, including six figure incomes for school administrators and, in a upsetting example, a school board secretary who makes $180,000. The other cabal is the supporters of charter schools, the private schools that can shake off the authority of the public school system and would aid inner-city kids if their taxpayer money could be more cautiously used. In those broken public schools, Bowdon points out, it’s almost unacceptable to fire a teacher — so even a meager one has a trade for life.

“‘The Cartel’ examines lots of individual aspects of public education, tenure, backing, support drops, subversion –meaning thieving — vouchers and charter schools,” says Bowdon. “And as such it kind of serves as a swift-moving primer on all of the red-hot topics inside the education-reform drive.”

Bowdon’s documentary started touring the festival circuit in summer of 2009 and made its theatrical debut in April 2010. It therefore proceeds the more-recently released, while higher profile, education docudrama “Waiting for Superman,” directed by Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”). Bowdon sees the films as complementary, and hopes that “Superman,” with its human-interest ideology, draws more interest to his own, which focuses on public policy. “My film is the left-brained variant, more analytical,” Bowdon says, “‘Waiting for Superman’ is more the right-brained treatment.”

It is unquestionably analytical, couching its arguments in an assessment of how the money is being spent, or misspent. Though he calls it left-brained, still “The Cartel” reaches some unhappy moments of emotion. A girl’s crying upon hearing that she wasn’t selected to attend a charter school, that she’s stuck in her public school, portray the failure of a system as well as Bowdon’s charts and interviews.

It’s difficult to view a film about corruption in Jersey and not think of the mob, but it’s also obvious that this is a national difficulty seen through a tight lens. A spectator anywhere in the country will spot similar failings in their own school system, and may share Bowdon’s frustration and avidness for a solution. Bowdon comes out in favor of the charter school plan, of taxpayers being able to choose their own schools, to get out from under the state’s control. But he also makes it plain that those in power are going to be unwilling to give it up without a fight.

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