Columbus was the latest city to host the award-winning documentary The Cartel, a film exposing the corruption within New Jersey’s K-12 education establishment. Bob Bowdon, former New Jersey reporter who witnessed one too many scandals in education in the Garden State, is the film’s producer and he spent last Friday evening at the Columbus Gateway Film Center answering audience questions.

Bowdon wants to know how “our public school system wastes and steals billions of dollars every year.” So do parents and kids in the movie. A good question, we think, to ask a state which spends more per pupil on education than any other in the nation. This isn’t hyperbole. The Cartel gets its name for a reason – in New Jersey (where I was a public school teacher before moving back to my home state of Ohio), there’s been an embarrassing amount of cheating on standardized tests, fraud, embezzlement by teachers and district officials. Bowdon pulls out egregious examples of central office administrators and superintendents who earn exorbitant salaries, and illustrates that spending per classroom in some districts is as high as $300,000 - $400,000 – yet the average teacher salary is just $55,000. Where is the rest of that money going?

The film also serves as a primer for school choice; Bowdon explains why funding should follow students to their school of choice and how this benefits all students and families. The film points out glaring inconsistencies in teachers’ unions’ attitudes toward choice – for example, why call magnet schools (which take students and dollars out of traditional public schools) “innovative” while labeling charter schools (public schools which divert funds in exactly the same way) “immoral” or otherwise bad? (Perhaps because charter schools aren’t unionized and thus they lose money, and political power, when schools of choice expand?)

This is a must watch for anyone mislead to think that teachers unions are financial underdogs, or for anyone wondering how or why we’ve ramped up education spending so dramatically over the last three decades with little or nothing to show for it.

The film isn’t just for those interested in the Garden State. Ohioans especially should pay attention, as costs for administrative overhead in New Jersey – a state with over 600 districts – resemble high costs in Ohio’s top-heavy K-12 system. The experience of New Jersey should serve as a warning to us all: spending more money and paying for more costly inputs (more teachers, requirements, programs, and mandates) does not translate into improved student achievement without the requisite policy changes to how we fund and manage schools, recruit and retain teachers, and think about what’s possible for our students.

See a review of the film on Fordham’s Flypaper blog; check out the flier for it; and purchase tickets from the Columbus Gateway Film Center here. Don’t miss it - it’s only showing for two more days!

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