Schools in New Jersey achieve an average of 39% reading proficiency on one of the most popular education tests, the National Assessment of Education Progress. Pop quiz: how much should a school spend, per classroom, to achieve such low standards? If you said less than $300,000-$400,000, then go to the back of the class and watch The Cartel, because that's how much is poured into New Jersey’s poorest school districts. Most of the people interviewed in the film predicted that schools spent under $100,000 per classroom.
Where does all of this money go? The first expense to come to mind is usually the teacher’s salary. Other costs include pensions, benefits and administration. Many of these expenses can be contained. They can also spiral out of control. In Maryland, for example, there are 24 school districts. In New Jersey, there are 616. That’s a lot of extra administrative positions, and would add up even without 400 administrators in Newark who are paid six figure salaries to do paperwork. And these are only the above board expenditures.
The expenses go beyond budget gimmicks. There have been cases of faked financial reports, teachers pocketing field trip money and selling prescriptions out of the nurse's office. One school went as far as hiring an athletic director with mob ties.
Even teachers who engaged in this behavior were protected, but there is one way to guarantee disciplinary action-speaking out against the union. One teacher in Camden was demoted for exposing an official who changed grades to make her school look like it was doing better than it actually was. Paula Veggian was told that she was risking her job by speaking up when she saw that students who didn’t have enough credits were being promoted to the next grade. The union wasn’t kidding - she was demoted over the next Christmas break. Another, Beverly Jones, was named the best American History teacher in the state. The following year she was fired for speaking up about phantom salaries in the budget. In both of these cases, teachers spoke up about "open secrets". Many teachers want to call attention to the corruption, but knew that doing so would most likely mean being fired. “My colleagues are saying it too…but they cannot afford to stand up to administration”, Ms. Jones explained.
Hearing the New Jersey Education Assocation's president’s breezy responses to these problems, one would never guess that children shed tears when they are not selected to attend charter schools. Or that in spite of the high demand for them, only one out of twenty two charter schools were approved in 2008. Remember, if the union had to compete with other schools, teachers would not be able to watch porn during class (and yes, that did happen). For an institution ostensibly dedicated to the welfare of children, the union seems to be much more concerned about benefiting its members.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way for children to escape these schools? As is pointed out in the film, “voucher” is considered a four-letter word. This is bad news for children who could be successful but are held back because of where they happen to live.
Bowdon explodes the usual arguments against school choice - that it takes money away from public schools, or that some children would be stuck in failing schools while others left. He also makes a compelling case for charter schools that would leave any public education advocate lost for words. From a charter school lottery to a small but effective school run out of a church, viewers can see the difference that private and charter schools make. It is particularly heartbreaking to juxtapose these stories with images of children in dangerous, crime-ridden schools. Why should any child have to attend a facility with a metal detector?
The Cartel lays out what common sense should have told us a long time ago - when schools have to work to stay afloat, teachers must serve students. When funding is guaranteed in spite of, (or because of) poor performance, it is guaranteed to attract types who want a protected salary. This monopoly on education has turned classrooms into public troughs and compromises the future of individual children and the nation as a whole. Public education has hidden behind the guise of helping children for a long time. Now that veil is wearing thin.