The Cartel is a new documentary film that should be seen by everyone who cares whether children in this country get a good education. It should especially be seen by anybody who thinks that merely shoveling more money into the schools will make them better.
The Cartel reveals the story behind the story of educational failure in the United States: Teachers’ unions are special interest groups, and, just like any special interest group, the unions exert a disproportionate influence on the public policies that most affect their members. Candidates for school boards must play nice with the unions, if not play the role of outright stooge; if they don’t, they’ll find themselves opposed by a block of very motivated voters. The teachers can thus select the people with whom they must negotiate their contracts; and teachers’ unions don’t want contracts that reward the best teachers and that allow bad teachers to be fired.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “Explain it to me like I’m a 5-year-old.” It’s a technique that reporter and filmmaker Bob Bowdon expertly uses here to tell the story of what has gone wrong with American education. And one of the things you learn from The Cartel is that explaining things to 5-year-olds—or 7-year-olds, or 9-year-olds—is a task that too many public schools can’t handle.
Some elements of this story will be familiar: American students get poor test scores compared to their peers from other countries; some high school graduates can’t even do basic math; many school districts can’t account for taxpayer money; violence is commonplace for too many students; very little money actually gets to the classroom; bad teachers can’t be fired; administrators get huge salaries; and school payrolls are bloated with patronage jobs. Bowdon reveals all of this and more, focusing especially on public education in New Jersey.
But he doesn’t stop at just describing the problems. Who, Bowdon asks, is watching the store? In theory, school boards run the schools, and the school boards are answerable to the voters. But are they? Have you ever noticed that school board elections are never held the same day as presidential elections? Why is that?
Of course, the politics of schools matter only because public schools have a guaranteed revenue stream no matter how poorly they perform. If instead we had a system where the funding followed the student to the school of his or her choice and entrepreneurs were free to start up alternative schools—call such a system “school choice” for short—then school boards would have no choice but to begin holding teachers accountable, otherwise they would lose all their students.
Bowdon pokes lots of holes in the arguments that teachers make against school choice. School choice, teachers say, diverts money from public schools into private schools. But that’s only true, points out Bowdon, if parents choose to use a voucher to go to another school. In other words, the money is only drained if public schools are doing such a poor job that parents want to leave. So when public school supporters make that argument, aren’t they really admitting that public schools aren’t very good? And why is it that so many opponents of school choice make out “voucher” to be such a dirty word while at the same time supporting other staples of progressive public policy such as food stamps, Pell Grants for higher education, Medicare, and Section 8 housing. Those are all voucher programs in which public money is provided for goods and services produced by the private sector!
See The Cartel, and take your kids, too, if you’re worried they’re not getting enough logic and reason in the classroom.