After watching THE CARTEL, a documentary about the education system by Bob Bowden, I was able to have a conversation with the director. Here is what he had to say about the film.
BOB: I didn’t know a lot of this stuff until I started shooting it. They expect, and count on, survive on, and thrive on a general lack of awareness.
KEVIN: You’ve been in television as a reporter, producer, news anchor, ect. Is that something that you always aspired to do?
BOB: No, actually not. I got a masters in engineering first. I had some jobs at AT&T, and Bell Labs as an engineer. But then I quit my job, went to film school, and just started all over again around 27. I worked mainly in television all of those years.
KEVIN: Was there a particular event of moment in time where you decided to go a different path?
BOB: Well, I was not happy in my job. I guess you can say that was part of the equation. And I wanted to be creative and just have fun for a living. So that sort of drove me to film school. In a way, it was a leap of faith. I had to throw away years of education, and diplomas I had gotten. I think my father was quite dumbfounded by the whole thing. You know, “back in his day,” you trained to be a whatever-you-are, and then you become that. So, the idea that I was kind of casting that aside mystified him a bit. But, I’m glad I did. I guess it’s kind of a cliché kind of story, where people that follow what they want to do are more successful. And people who are beaten down are kind of slogging into some sort of job they don’t enjoy. For me, it worked out.
KEVIN: After your extensive in television and reporting, “The Cartel” is your first film. When did you decide that you wanted to make a documentary?
BOB: I covered education as a TV reporter for years, and had been kind of shocked and amazed at some of the things that happened. But the real catalyst was that I had a friend that got a job as an English teacher in an inter-city high school, and started hearing her stories of what things are really like. I thought to myself that a lot of people don’t know about this stuff. I heard about how rigid the curriculum rules are, and how basically any kind of creativity that a teacher wanted to apply would be robbed from them.
So the point is, my friend got a job as an inter-city high school English teacher. And her stories of corruption and waste ended up giving me the sense that this subject deserved the kind of long-form treatment that a documentary could provide.
KEVIN: So I take it that you chose New Jersey as the location of the documentary because it’s where you have lived, and been reporting for some time now.
BOB: Well that’s true. But there is also a logical tie in, in the sense that the mantra of the education establishment for a long time has been to throw money at the problem, and I happened to be living in the state that at the time of the film was the biggest spender per student. So, the premise being, if you think money is the answer to fixing broken public schools, study the US state that spends the most. Did throwing money at the problem fix the schools or not? So while it’s true that I did live in New Jersey, it’s also a kind of interesting client for people who don’t live there. For people who do believe that they do need to invest more in education.
KEVIN: It was interesting how you could ask people on the street if they should spend more on education, and everyone said yes. And when you told them how much was already being spent per class, they were all surprised.
BOB: I know! And somebody told me an anecdote – I shot the interview, but it’s not in the movie – that in general you can ask people if we should spend more, and they say “yes.” You ask them to guess what we are spending now, and they give you a number. And you ask them to tell you what we should be spending, and they give you a higher number. And both numbers are actually below what we are actually spending. So that’s an anecdote, rather than airing that sound bite in the film, we just did it.
KEVIN: Once you decided to make the documentary, how long did it take to get it going?
BOB: I don’t think it took to o long to get started. I basically bought a high definition camera, and started making some phone calls and doing some internet searches and coming up with some stories that had already been in newspapers that haven’t been told in video form. And I thought I would call some of these people up, some of these names right here in the headlines. A lot of them, you call them and they say “come on over.” You tell people you are doing a documentary film, and most of them think “yeah, it will be kind of fun to talk to this guy. But we’ll never see this again.” I think typically something like 99 times out of 100 you will never see that footage appear anywhere. We surprised them a little bit.
KEVIN: Many of the people that you interviewed with the district schools made some silly points when trying to defend wasteful spending. How hard was it to get them to talk – they seemed pretty open.
BOB: Yeah, I think that’s part of it. A lot of people will respond to this stuff with impunity because they are not used to being challenged at all. There are people that are education beat reporters that need unions as a source, and the unions are also aware of this. They have almost become a little complacent, because no one asks them the hard questions. No one challenges them much. If they did, they would be cut off and not get any more leads. That’s why the union president was able to sit there and just make up things to me. About charter schools compelling parental involvement, and things that are just wrong. Just make things up. Because people just don’t do what I did. So in the aftermath, as to why they would be sol bold as to lie on camera, is because typically reporters do not challenge them. The reporters just generally kind of believe what they say, write it down and print it.
KEVIN: What did you find that the number one reason was that these schools and unions can get away with this?
BOB: That’s the idea of “The Cartel.” They are separate forces, but they have a cozy working relationship where they get together and agree to keep the money flowing, and keep reform stifled. It’s all more jobs for everyone if they keep their mouths closed, and everyone gets to keep paying their mortgages.
I do not think the answer is more layers of regulation. I think that the answer is competition. It will do wonders for improving and reforming the schools in ways that you could spend billions of dollars on regulatory bodies to watch them. And probably they would be corrupted over time too. When schools are competing, just like when car companies are competing or coffee shops are competing. You don’t need a regulator to look over and make sure that Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks is giving you as much coffee as they say they are giving you. They have to satisfy the customers, and it’s a much more efficient way for a service to be delivered, than having someone stand there and police that performance. You just direct customers the other direction when bad performance happens. It stops happening.
No one orders anybody in a voucher or charter environment. Nobody orders anyone out of a district school. They’re happy, they can just stay there. To be against school choice, that means that someone who is not happy – you are willing to force them to stay. Even if they want to leave, you coercively tell them, “no, we won’t let you leave.” That’s what you have to say to be against school choice. We have drop-out rates over 50 percent in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Canton and many other places. Bill Gates himself has called American high schools “obsolete.” Every international comparison shows the US at the bottom of the largest industrialized countries in performance.
I don’t know how much more evidence you need. And I don’t know how anyone in good conscience tells parents who desperately want their kids out of chronically failing schools that they have to keep their kids there. “Maybe someday more money will help, but for now you can’t leave.” That just seems unconscionable to me.
KEVIN: In the film, you also ask people if they would like to have money or a scholarship for their kids to go to a private school, and they would jump on it. And you call it a voucher, and that word is virtually taboo.
BOB: It’s been a PR campaign on the part of the establishment to call it some sort of right-wing, extremist, evil plot. But the evil plot is billions of dollars disappearing in urban schools that are not doing any educating. I don’t know what could be more evil than that plot. It robs tax-payers of money, and it robs children of education and their futures.
KEVIN: You showed when comparing one district school to a charter school, they achieved 38.5 percent to 57.5 percent better proficiency in Language arts and math – and for $0.64 cents on the dollar. It was incredible.
BOB: I know. It’s because every year, they have to get people to knock on their door and say “will you please take my kid.” They have to perform to stay alive. That’s the difference. It’s all you need to know.
It’s like when the Soviet Union made cars in their Soviet factories, but nobody wanted those cars. Everyone wanted the cars from the west, where capitalism took place.
There are school districts that are the “BMW” of school districts, and there are some that are the “Peugeot” of school districts. And we do exactly what the analogy does. It might be a little bit lighter weight, and audiences will laugh a bit. But the fact it, that’s exactly the argument they make. They say, “no, we can’t let you buy a Hyundai or a Ford. That would drain the Peugeot factory of money that it needs to improve.” That’s exactly what they say. It would be preposterous in any other industry to make that point. Let the people go get the better thing, instead of forcing them to keep using the bad thing in the hopes that the money will make it better. It doesn’t get better because of the monopoly.
KEVIN: You did a good job of not just showing one side as well. You also showed a charter school that wasn’t testing quite as well as the district schools around it, but it was safer. And people were happy to go there.
BOB: That’s just it. And I’ve had people stand up at Q&As, and say “oh, well there. They’re only picking these schools because of its safety. It doesn’t even score better.” They are implying, “these stupid parents, using that as a criteria. That’s non-sense.” I’ve had people literally stand up and say that. It’s so much fun making fun of that point. Usually the whole crowd will get behind me.
KEVIN: You show that Maryland has 24 school districts, while New Jersey has 616 school districts. The average district in Maryland teaches 35,000 students, while in New Jersey the average is only 2,300. How do these numbers compare to other states in the US?
BOB: I think a lot of the disparity has to do with the cost of living. Like in California, New York, and New Jersey – the cost of living is more. So while it’s true the raw numbers are here, it would be interesting to do a cost of living adjustment and figure who is spending the most. Really the larger issue is the monopoly model is everywhere, so the same problems are everywhere. Like not being able to fire a bad teacher, or not being able to give merit pay to a good teacher. How much percentage of the spending goes to administration, instead of the classroom. Those things really are just everywhere, and that’s why there’s interest all over the country. Theaters that want to show the film in their theater, and educators who want to show it in their classrooms. It’s an issue that has been so ignored by the media, and the same frustrations are clearly everywhere.
I have a friend who says the whole country is moving that direction, but New Jersey is kind of getting there first. But the rest of the country, all these establishments and bureaucracies in the rest of the country wish they were where New Jersey is in terms of overspending. That’s their goal; that’s their aim and their direction. Can they spend as much as we do here?
KEVIN: I think it will be very powerful
BOB: The movie business, I’ve learned, is all about publicity. Sometimes movies even with the biggest, most famous Hollywood actors alive will still spend $50 million dollars just to get people to come. So with a little film like mine, the real challenge is to get the initial critical mass of people just to be aware that it exists in the first place. I hope that there has been at least enough coverage to do that.
KEVIN: Do you have any other projects coming up?
BOB: I have a PBS talk show series. I shot a mini-series of a debate show, and we had four episodes of it with different topics every week. We are hoping to retool and come back for another season. The show is called” Two Way Street.” If you go to twowaystreet.tv you can watch them.
Bob Bowdon, The Cartel’s director, has been a New Jersey-based television producer, reporter, news anchor, and commentator for the past fifteen years. His varied career has seen him producing television shows; hosting news programs; conducting in-depth on-camera interviews; appearing in satirical news sketches for the Onion News Network; anchoring regional news broadcasts covering New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut; and shaping Bloomberg Television’s World Financial Report. He is president of Bowdon Media, an Internet marketing firm, and holds degrees in mechanical engineering, engineering management, and film production from Purdue University, Stanford University, and New York University. The Cartel is his first film.
For more information about THE CARTEL, visit the official website at www.thecartelmovie.com.