The Cartel


Where does all the money we spend on schools go? And why do we continue to sink tens of thousands of dollars per student into a district school system that is clearly failing our kids?

Those are the questions that Bob Bowden, in the new tour through the house of horrors that is public school funding the US, The Cartel, opening Friday at the Chez Artiste here in Denver.  I was lucky enough to attend the press screening, courtesy of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, and there’s a reason they sponsored the screening.  The film is a powerful indictment of how our schools are funded, and the politics of how those funds are allocated.

The public schools and public school teachers in this country have unfathomable reservoirs of goodwill. I myself spent all but one year of my primary and secondary education in the northern Virginia public schools, and think they did a pretty good job. Up until recently, public schools routinely got capital building bonds they requested, and when polled, most Americans still don’t think we spend enough on schools. In large part, that’s because the teachers’ unions have done such a good job of equating teacher salary with overall school spending, when fact, it’s only a fraction of classroom spending.

But there are signs that some of that goodwill needs to be written down. The so-far successful campaign of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to put a spotlight on the NJEA, the popularity of charter schools here in Colorado, as well as the progress of tenure reform through the state legislature, are all evidence that dissatisfaction is turning into action.

The reason for this is the administrative overhead and waste, high-paying jobs-for-the-boys attitude that pervades so much of public education. That money translates into highly politically-motivated teachers. Their influence in off-schedule, lightly-attended school board elections often means that they get to pick the people with whom they negotiate. (It’s that dynamic that the Democrats’ current financial reform efforts seek to replicate on national scale in private industry.)

Bowden also takes us through a number of thought experiments about keeping our children trapped in failing schools, comparing that modus operandi with some of the alternatives: vouchers, charter schools, and magnet schools. I don’t want to spoil the effect, but the charter school examination features a lottery that is truly heartbreaking, even as it’s hopeful.  Parents, whose kids are trapped in truly awful schools are forced to attend these lotteries because the demand for decent schools far outstrips the supply.  They react as though they believe that their children’s futures hang in the balance.

The reaction, obfuscations, and evasions of the head of the New Jersey Education Associate to all of this are both infuriating, and jaw-dropping in their condescension.

This isn’t to say the movie is flawless. There are a couple of occasions where the filmmakers put their thumb on the scales, asking us to assume that a firing or a failure to renew is a result solely or primarily of pressure from the teachers’ union. It’s not that that isn’t believable, it’s that when stories like that are believable that the greatest scrutiny is called for.

Bowdon also skirts the issue of teacher pay. One of the first misconceptions he takes on is the proportion of school spending that goes to teacher pay, and the widespread belief that more spending equals higher pay. Most citizens take it on faith that teachers are underpaid, but an increasing number of studies show teacher pay competitive with comparable private sector careers. Without a true market in teachers, and without effective means of evaluating them, fair pay remains an elusive concept.

From a technical level, the digital recording stutters enough to be distracting. Either digital still isn’t on the level of film, or this headache-inducing editing technique needs to stop.

But these are details.

While Colorado probably doesn’t have the worst excesses of New Jersey, that doesn’t mean the underlying dynamic doesn’t exist. This is, after all, a national problem. Towards the end of the film. Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform says, “I used to wonder not why parents weren’t protesting, but why they weren’t lighting fires and breaking windows.”

After you see The Cartel, you’ll wonder that, too. Especially if you’re a parent.

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