Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Must see movie: The Cartel

For decades, people have been warning of a problem with our public schools. The general consensus has been that if we spend more money, we'll have better outcomes. But recent test scores, both nationally and internationally, show just the opposite has occurred - our scores are stagnant, not improving, and our standing in the world is declining. We must need even more money - right?

That is the premise the starts the educational expose, The Cartel, a movie that looks at the state of education in New Jersey, though the movie's director, Bob Bowdon, is quick to explain that other states have similar problems.

I saw a screening of the movie at RightOnLine in San Diego, sponsored by Americans for Prosperity who provided me with a travel scholarship to attend. With the emphasis we have on education in Toledo - and the massive budget deficits along with the stated need for 'transformational change,' I thought seeing the movie would provide me with a good idea of the overall problems within public education and maybe some ideas on how to address them locally. I was correct.

The movie starts with Bowden, who has been in the news business for the past 15 years, asking various parents if they think more money needs to be spent on education. Overwhelmingly, the response is yes. But then he tells them how much their school is spending per year per classroom - and the parents are dumbstruck. One asked how much of the nearly half a million dollars per year goes to the teacher and was shocked to learn it averaged only about 10%. Upon finding how much money each classroom was costing, all the parents wanted to know where the money was going - because they certainly weren't seeing it in their kid's class.

It's a question that is resonating across America. As Bowden details, in New Jersey, 90 cents of every dollar goes to someplace other than the teacher - so it's not the teachers, themselves, that are the problem. Children are the not the focus of schools anymore, he explains. It's money that is the focus - and the adults who get or control the money to the detriment of the kids they're supposed to be serving.

Bowden interviews a NJ history teacher who was the state's teacher of the year. She end up being fired because she questioned funding for positions she knew didn't exist. While she won her lawsuit over the firing, she explains that other teachers knew the same thing, but couldn't risk their jobs to be whistle blowers.

Then there is the example of the speech therapist who kept asking for more help because of an increasing workload. The administrator took a look at the workload and saw that, yes, it was increasing. But then he looked further to find that kids were placed in speech therapy, but were never leaving. He commissioned outside experts to examine every student in the therapy program and found that a significant majority had no issues requiring a speech therapist. But this was one way to game the system.

These kinds of examples abound throughout the movie.

Bowden says the biggest bully in the schools is the teachers union, especially when they place the value of their union over the value to the children. He isn't opposed to unions - but he is opposed to the role they're playing in the educational cartel while opposing programs, policies and ideas that would help kids.

He rightly questions why teachers unions would be opposed to merit pay. Without it, he says, great teachers don't get rewarded for their performance, mediocre teachers don't get the support they need or the incentive to do better and bad teachers dominate - the union, the schools and the attention of the public.

Bowden makes a clear distinction that I believe we should adopt locally: the difference between public funding of education versus public administration of education. Nearly all people agree that public education should exist and most people don't mind paying for it, though they will disagree on 'how much.' So the issue isn't the public funding - but there are numerous ways to publicly fund education - and not all of them require public administration of system.

But, as Bowden notes, the whole idea of vouchers is rejected by too many people. So let's stop calling them 'vouchers' and change the name (that's what liberals -oops, progressives - do all the time). Vouchers are, basically, scholarships. So when you ask people about vouchers, they have a negative impression, including all the myths that have been promoted about them. But when you ask people if they'd like a 'scholarship' for children, they almost universally love the idea.

Bowden looks at all the claims promoted by opponents of vouchers and destroys every one. I love that he points out the hypocrisy of these people by highlighting how they're all for 'vouchers' in the form of Section 8 Housing, Medicare, the GI Bill, Pell Grants - even Food Stamps. So why would education be any different?

This is a key point that all of us should remember to emphasize at every opportunity.

Rev. Reginald Jackson, president of the New Jersey Black Ministers’ Council, is featured at one point in the movie and he says this:

"Quality education should not be a privilege nor based upon zip code."

Simple, but true. But too many think vouchers and charter schools are a GOP plot to steal money from public education and feed it to white corporations. As one person in the movie explained, if that's true, then failing schools are a plan of evil Democrats who depend upon 'us' to maintain their status quo. "We've been pimping children for a very long time."

Some other questions we should be asking of those opposed to school choice are emphasized throughout the movie:

* Is a high drop-out rate a better alternative than 'letting' a child attend a school of their choice?

* Are bad schools the only choice because vouchers are 'evil'?

* If it's really 'for the children,' why trap a child in a school that's not meeting their needs?

* Since safety cannot be measured on a test, shouldn't children have an option other than a school rife with violence?

But the best analogy is the burning building. Bowden demolishes every argument against school choice by asking:

If you see a building on fire and 20 people inside, do you not save any of them just because you know you cannot save them all?

That is what we need to focus upon - saving as many children as possible from a failing education, even if we cannot save them all through school choice or scholarships for all.

The most touching part of the movie is watching a lottery drawing for school vouchers. We see the elation of two moms whose children got one of the limited spots available. We share their tears of joy that, as they say, their children now have a chance. And our hearts go out to the mom sitting with her crying daughter whose name has not yet been called, even though they are into drawing the list of alternates in case one of the winners doesn't follow through. Both mom and daughter know that their chances of attending a school of their choice are not going to happen.

This movie puts a human face on the problems and frustrations. As the movie's website states,

Together, these people and their stories offer an unforgettable look at how a widespread national crisis manifests itself in the educational failures and frustrations of individual communities. They also underscore what happens when our schools don't do their job. "These are real children whose lives are being destroyed," director Bob Bowdon explains.

But the movie doesn't just inform you, there are things you can do and I hope you'll take the time to sign up for updates and participate in the items listed on the website.

The movie is available through Amazon.com and costs just under $25 (shipping to Toledo included). I've ordered my copy and would be happy to loan it to you for your private viewing if you can't afford your own copy. I believe it's important to see. Below is the trailer:

There is also a public showing version of the film that I hope someone locally will be willing to sponsor (about $200). It would certainly complement "Waiting for Superman" and "Kids Aren't Cars" that have been or are going to be shown.

But if not, we can still share the lessons from this movie and start focusing on what 'transformational change' really means.

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