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Bowden hits the streets (The Moving Picture Institute)

The Cartel

Back to School

Issue: "Rocks in their heads?," Sept. 11, 2010

The state of New Jersey spends the most money per pupil and has dismal test scores to show for it. The Cartel, an education documentary by journalist Bob Bowdon, explores why.

The Cartel is overly ambitious, jumping from administrative costs to school corruption to vouchers to a church tutoring service to charter schools. It tries to make a sweeping case for school reform but ends up seeming glib. The film (2009, The Moving Picture Institute, not rated) is at its most interesting when it covers a neglected topic: Why does education cost so much?

Bowdon notes that one district school spends $313,000 per classroom and only $55,000 goes to the teacher's salary. So where does the rest of it go? For starters, $33 million goes to a football field at a school where one in seven seniors cannot read. Whistleblower teachers notice that a school is doling money to employees who don't exist, and other states can educate for less. In Maryland, for example, one district serves 35,000 students and in New Jersey, one district serves just 2,300. That means New Jersey needs more administrators, which means more $741,000 severance packages and $120,000 yearly pensions.

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The Cartel tells a few shocking facts but lacks the focus and storytelling needed to make those facts vivid.

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