The Cartel: It’s Not About the Kids, It’s About the Money

Liberty Alerts, Education Reporter

Are your local schools substandard despite ever-increasing funding? Have you ever wondered why? Give documentary filmmaker Bob Bowdon 90 minutes and he can connect the dots for you.

The Cartel is a hard-hitting expos‚ that shows how the union stranglehold on public education is destroying the lives of millions of children. Bad teachers can’t be fired because they have tenure. Politicians are bankrolled and controlled by the unions.

Formerly an anchor and reporter for Bloomberg Television, Bowdon left that job to spend two years answering one burning question: How can a state that spends $17,500 per student each year fail them so badly?

For years, poorer schools received even more money per student, on average more than $350,000 per classroom in New Jersey’s worst-performing districts, with no improvement. In one district Bowdon examined, only about $55,000 of that figure goes toward teacher salaries. The rest supports extremely generous administrator pay, six-figure janitor paychecks, teacher aides with spotty attendance, and other questionable staff positions. Cronyism and nepotism are rampant. An audit found that a full 29% of spending in New Jersey’s poorest districts was wasted.

Not everyone goes along with the corruption, but whistleblowers are not hailed as heroes. Just ask Hector Bonilla, a former Newark, NJ principal who was fired after he requested disciplinary action for teachers he caught watching porn on the job. “You keep quiet if you want this high-paying position,” he explained. “They’ll put your name in the newspaper, which means you’ll never be employed again. They play dirty, because there’s so much money involved.”

State history teacher of the year Beverly Jones was impugned after she pointed out phantom positions in her school’s budget. Thirty-year teaching veteran Paula Veggian was demoted and transferred when she exposed her school’s falsification of student test scores.

Behind all of the dismal tales of greed, graft and goons are real children stuck in failing and often violent schools. The film introduces us to17-year-old Juan, a soft-spoken kid who played shortstop in high school and wants to open his own car repair business. After ten years in Camden, NJ public schools, Juan could not recite the alphabet, much less read. His math skills were slightly better; by the 8th-grade, he knew the multiplication tables up to four times four.

Students enrolled in a program called Community Education Resource Network (CERN) tell why they prefer it to the public schools they left. Some cite teachers who actually care about student learning, and others stress finally feeling safe at school. The contrast in funding is as stark as the attitudes of teachers and students. Instead of a $17,500 per student budget, CERN is run on a shoestring and a prayer. Teachers are volunteers, classes are held at a church, and the school uses textbooks thrown away by public schools. After working with kids who graduated from Camden public schools, CERN co-founder Angel Cordero has some pointed questions for district teachers and administrators: “For 12 years, what did you do with that child? What did you do with the money?”

The film also explains how unions collude with bureaucrats and politicians to oppose school choice in the form of vouchers or charter schools. There is a huge demand among parents and students for charter schools, yet New Jersey approved only one out of 22 charter school applications in 2008. One heart-rending scene shows parents and young kids waiting to see whose names will be drawn in the charter-school lottery. Two women whose daughters’ names are drawn can’t contain their joy and run out of the room, nearly dancing, praising God for His blessing. When asked what this means for their kids, one replies, “It means they have a chance.” As tickets are drawn for the last few available spots, tears begin to stream down one young girl’s face. Her mother holds her and tries to comfort her, but the little girl can’t stop crying.

Bowdon, whose mother was a public school teacher, makes clear that he isn’t out to demonize every teacher and every administrator. But he isn’t falling for the argument that supporting good teachers precludes criticizing bad ones. “This absurd idea that you have got to support every teacher, or else you hate all teachers, has been an effective myth put forth by the union for years,” he said.

Though the Garden State is the backdrop for most of the film, Bowdon uses national data to prove problems extend well beyond New Jersey. Despite higher spending on education than most other nations, only 35% of all American high school students are proficient in national reading tests, and only 23% are proficient in math. High school dropout rates for many cities are beyond alarming: 54% in Atlanta, 65% in Baltimore, 58% in Cleveland, and 38% in Memphis. “Much like the drug cartels, this enterprise is national. But instead of running coke and pot on the backs of mules, [the education establishment folks are] running their careers and get-rich-quick scams on the backs of your children,” remarked Michael Slenske in an article about the film. (, 4-20-10)

Limited screenings have been held in major cities including Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and New Jersey. A Bowdon Media representative said there is a possibility of wider screenings, and a DVD will be available later this summer. To view clips from the film, visit

Used with the permission of Eagle Forum.

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