From the crude graphics he uses to accentuate his arguments to the John Carpenter-esque synths he plays over particularly sinister revelations of wrongdoing, director Bob Bowdon makes it easy to dislike The Cartel, a damning documentary exposé about how America’s—specifically New Jersey’s—public education system serves its employees first, its students second. The torrent of facts and percentages about readership proficiency in schools, administrator pay, and tax payer funds, among other things, is so aggressive that, after five minutes, you’re ready to write off the filmmaker as just another Michael Moore acolyte.
But Bowdon is admittedly less snarkier and ingratiating than Moore, if not as an artist then as a journalist, and The Cartel becomes gripping when it stops dishing facts and Bowdon begins to unload on the Garden State’s education system for shamelessly rejecting all but one of 22 applications for charter schools in 2008 (and for the flimsiest of reasons), and on teacher unions for their callous disregard for the physical and academic well-being of students trapped in schools with no means of bailing. Tenure policy gets a well-deserved beat down, as do Democrats (excepting the occasional lone wolf like Diane Feinstien) for opposing school vouchers, because the practice, at least on the surface, doesn’t appear to align with their liberal sensibilities; their belief that allowing kids in zip code schools to use vouchers in order to go to private or charter schools will have an adverse effect on those students who stay behind is handily refuted by research that Bowden intelligently presents.
But where the film really comes alive is in its giving a human face to those affected by the state’s thuggish education system, documenting the heroic efforts of a volunteer school devoted to the livelihood of students from especially bad school districts like Camden, revealing the tearful results of a lottery that will determine whether Newark parents will get a chance to send their kids to charter schools, and extolling the heroism of teachers like Beverly Jones for taking a stand against a system without fear of retribution. The cronism and nepotism that’s institutionalized in the state’s education system is shocking and revealed by Bowdon with sympathetic regard for the students. The Godfather-like graphic theme applied to the film’s title may be corny, but it’s fitting all the same, because you leave the film believing, and ardently so, that people like NJEA president Joyce Powell are nothing but mobsters.