At times, The Cartel takes on the tone of a black comedy when it talks about people like John Cockran who taught English for 17 years although he ultimately admitted that he was a functional illiterate. Or the interview with the head of New Jersey's teachers' union who doesn't blink while mouthing nonsensical justifications in support of teachers no matter how damning the facts. Even though stories like these clearly go a long way in explaining an overall 37% student rate in reading at 8th grade level and a 23% rate of proficiency in math, what remains as the unaddressed question at the end of the movie is how such a clearly illegal and compromised public school system where self-serving unions and unnecessary public school boards can continue to pervert the education process when the real cause and effect of this failure is so blatantly clear? As I've said before, I guess "too big to fail" in addition to banks, Wall Street, and the health insurance industry also applies to politically connected public school districts, where excellent education "is not on the table."
In the film, writer/director Bowdon goes from talking with teachers like Paula Veggian about grade inflation to Anne Milgran the State Attorney General. While the film at one point talks about the disappearance of $1 billion in school funds and other bloated construction projects that spend hundreds of millions on sport stadiums at schools where the students remain illiterate, again, no one at either the state or federal level of law enforcement seems willing to take on the pervasive corruption that continues to bleed the states taxpayers while not educating its children, because government politicians look to these same corrupt unions and business entities for campaign contributions.
It's not like nobody has the guts to stand up to this tyranny, there are several examples of a principal and a school superintendent presented in the movie who stood up to teachers watching porn on school time or trying to restructure the schools in a manner than would give them a better chance to succeed. In both cases, the principal and superintendent who had the guts to stand up were removed or forced to resign. In multiplying the average daily attendance money paid by the State of New Jersey times the number of students per class, Bowdon calculates that teachers' salaries only account for less than 1/6 of the more than $330,000 per class average. Not only does this clearly explain the motive for the fraud in New Jersey, it also goes a long way to explaining it at LAUSD and elsewhere in public education where the per class costs are similar. The Cartel points out that failure to go along with it is political suicide for anybody seeking real reform.
While the incisive analysis of the film creates a detailed picture of failed public education and the damage it continues to do to all concerned -- except those benefiting from the corruption -- it takes a rather naive approach to privatizing public education in one way or another as inherently better than fixing existing public schools, because allegedly privatization would create the competition necessary to make the post-office-like failed non-competitive public school districts shape up. Bowdon suggests that giving parents vouchers would have this palliative effect where corruption would finally be addressed. I strongly disagree with him for the following reasons:
1. The amount of money presently proposed to be given in vouchers in no way would be sufficient to allow working class families to pay for private schools or many other reform models, thereby further draining state assets from public schools.
2. The administrative costs of charter schools are much greater than they need to be, but like corrupt public schools, nobody seems to want to address the poor working conditions of teachers in these schools that see a huge turnover in staff or the unjustifiable administrative costs.
3. While some public and school reform models are successful, it is only to the extent that they honestly deal with the subjective academic levels of the students within their school. A safer school environment should not be acceptable as a justification to move predominantly minority students into charters where they do no better academically. No model -- public, private -- can improve the dismal education system in this country if social promotion and grade inflation continue to allow students to be put in classes that are years beyond their abilities to understand or benefit from.
4. One of the main reasons for rampant corruption of New Jersey public schools and those in LAUSD and elsewhere is the difficulty involved in regulating hundreds of school districts and schools with opaque administrative structures that are designed to mask the academic and financial realities. As Diane Ravitch points out in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the presently corrupt public school districts came into existence at the turn of the last century to deal with the rampant corruption of small charter-like schools.
5. The privatization of public schools is more about the supposed free market American capitalist system tapping into a projected $250 billion public education market by privatizing it than it is about competition to make the present public education system accountable.
What is going on in schools only parallels what is going on in government. Our Founding Fathers created a system in government of checks and balances with walls of separation to ensure honesty not based on trust, but based on clear and immediate consequences. Clearly in both government and public education the walls of separation between those who perform and those who have a fiduciary duty to see that they do so in an honesty manner have been breached. It is a hard counter intuitive lesson that humans seem to have always had a hard time learning: Making more money ever year does not mean that you will live better. In fact, it is becoming clearer and clearer that it means we all are going to live much worse in the not too distant future.