Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Cartel

Illustration for article titled The Cartel

Though it hits theaters well before Davis Guggenheim’s Sundance favorite Waiting For Superman, Bob Bowdon’s muckraking exposé The Cartel nevertheless feels unmistakably like a Roger Corman quickie knock-off of Guggenheim’s much slicker exploration of the profound failure of our public-school system. Both films reach similar conclusions about the same social problems, but where Guggenheim’s documentary is thoughtful and restrained, Bowdon’s low-budget, low-fi counterpart is powered by raw rage that sometimes threatens to undermine his argument. Conventional wisdom has long contended that the central problem facing students is underfunded schools and underpaid teachers, but Bowdon contends that the problem might just lie in overpaying educators, especially bureaucrats with a vested interest in maintaining a corrupt, fatally flawed system that provides them with obscenely fat paychecks and a level of job security inconceivable to most American workers.

Bowdon uses New Jersey’s abysmal public schools to illustrate his thesis that the dire state of the American educational system can be attributed to an entrenched bureaucracy—the sinister “cartel” of the title—more concerned with maintaining its power and position than in educating young people. Under his reasoning, much of the fault lies with teachers’ unions so powerful they’re able to hand-select who they negotiate with at the bargaining table, and a tenure system that protects bad teachers, but does little to reward innovation or brilliance.

Bowden borrows liberally from the Michael Moore playbook by regularly stepping in front of the camera to confront school officials and union bigwigs, who resort to dubious logic to justify the current system. He also stages pointless man-on-the-street interviews to illustrate just how little most people know about our educational system. The Cartel frequently veers into the realm of black comedy, as Bowdon uncovers instances of nightmarish teacher behavior, but the dark comic elements would be better served by deadpan detachment. The Cartel makes a persuasive argument for vouchers and magnet schools, but its case might be a little stronger if Bowdon didn’t appear to be frothing at the mouth with indignation much of the time.