Cartel Recap

Posted on April 16, 2010



This is an old post which I have moved forward in time on my blog because of the national release of this absurd film.

For series of posts on this topic, see: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/category/the-cartel-movie-schlockumentary/

Okay… so a few people meandering through my posts over time have sought some synthesis of my gripes about Bob Bowdon’s Cartel Movie. First of all, here’s a link to a pretty good review of the film which I just found yesterday: http://www.nj.com/entertainment/tv/index.ssf/2009/10/the_cartel_movie_review_docume.html

  • The divisive, emotional and complicated debate now raging over powerful public teachers unions and “school choice” — a catchphrase that encompasses support for vouchers, charter schools and a variety of other reforms — could use a comprehensive sorting-out by a diligent observer. Bob Bowdon’s smarmy diatribe isn’t it.
  • In taking to task the sorry state of our public schools, former New Jersey TV personality Bob Bowdon employs the three R’s of bad filmmaking: righteousness, revilement and redundancy.

And these glowing reviews accept as a given, Bowdon’s “statistical” argument validating the crisis of schooling in New Jersey.

Here’s my own synopsis of the arguments behind the film – the Crisis that necessitates the Solution.

The Crisis (Bowdon’s Crisis)

There’s a crisis in education in America and more specifically in New Jersey. Quite simply, every country in the world is handing us a beating as a nation and as a state, despite the massive amount of money we are throwing down the rat-hole of our public education system.

Bowdon’s evidence of a crisis:

Bowdon complains of our lagging national performance by making comparisons of international assessments such as PISA to other countries (critique of the relevance of PISA here). Here, Bowdon twists the argument to specifically blame states like New Jersey, which are not only a part of this substandard American education system, but are emblematic of it, by spending obscene amounts of money for these failures. Okay… so here’s the basic logic:

  • Our national average test scores are bad compared to other countries
  • New Jersey spends a lot on schools, and is part of this terrible national system
  • Therefore, spending is bad, our schools are terrible nationally, and New Jersey is even worse

But, as I discuss here: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/06/17/vacuous_bowdon/

New Jersey actually performs very well even on international comparisons, in a legitimate, rigorous statistical analysis by the American Institutes for Research (http://www.air.org/files/International_Benchmarks1.pdf) And, our national average is only as low as it is because of our many very low spending states that have chosen to throw their public education systems under the bus. Can’t blame New Jersey’s high spending for Louisiana and Mississippi’s low performance Bob. (some useful comparisons on this more recent post: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2010/02/23/common-standards-and-the-capacity-to-achieve-them/)

In an effort to further the argument that New Jersey schools in particular are an abomination, Bowdon points out how New Jersey is by a long shot (okay, I’m exaggerating his point here), first in the nation (if not the world) in spending on schools. Yet, if you correct NJ graduation rates to count only those kids who pass the NJ state tests, we’re only 24th on graduation rate. Yep, mediocre at best for all that money. Down the rat-hole. Clearly, the kids who graduate high school in all those other states, like Tennessee for example, must be able to pass the NJ state tests. Oh wait, they don’t take the NJ tests, do they? Another really dumb comparison Bob (a comparison originally generated by E3, but in the context of a broader critique of graduation rates).

This new report (as well as an older version) shows that the NJ tests aren’t really the least rigorous tests out there: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/studies/2010456.asp. Not great. But not the worst either. Yes, if we’re going to have tests, we should expect kids to pass them. No excuses there. But the graduation rate comparison is still completely bogus. I address this topic in greater detail here: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/10/16/more-cartel-garbage-bowdon-still-an-idiot/. Oh, and by the way, as I point out in that same post, NJ is in good company on per pupil spending, rarely actually topping the list.

The icing on the cake is the analysis Bowdon originally presented as part of his “Facts and Figures” to support his “crisis” case . This still stands as the absolute dumbest analysis I have seen or read pretty much anywhere in my years working in education policy research (okay, this one comes close: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/05/13/should-think-tanks-be-licenced-to-think-and-when-should-a-license-be-revoked/) . Here, Bob Bowdon explains his brilliant revelation that states which spend more on their schools have lower SAT scores – so spending more lowers SAT scores… or at least those states that do spend more simply waste it so badly that SAT scores go down… for some reason. I tackle this outright stupidity in my first post on the topic: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/05/30/idiot-of-week-award-the-cartel-check-this-out/ (While Bowdon has removed much of this completely ridiculous content from the movie site, the logic of his current site content remains the same, and these absurd comments/arguments represent the level of Bowdon’s thinking at the time the movie was initially released. I saved copies of the original SAT graphs. They make great teaching examples of deeply flawed reasoning!)

The solution to the crisis that may not exist:

Okay, so if Bowdon can’t concoct his crisis, there’s really no need for a solution to it. You know, it might not actually be that hard to do a reasonable run through some real numbers to point out some serious problems, inequities and inadequacies in our education system as a nation and in New Jersey schools. They are certainly far from perfect. But, Bowdon can’t seem to string together even one set of legitimate, well argued facts to make such a case. So, I could stop here. By Bowdon’s absurd evidence, no crisis actually exists, therefore, no need for solution. But of course, Bob has one:

The only possible two solutions – Charter schools and Vouchers to private schools – with emphasis on the former. Everyone knows that money doesn’t solve education problems, Charters and Vouchers do (only if they’re well funded, though). Now, let me qualify here that I am a fan of charter schools having been a founding member of the special interest group on charter school research of the American Education Research Association and having written research articles which find favorable results for charter schools regarding academic quality of teachers (http://epx.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/20/5/752) . I’m also a fan of private schools, having taught in one of NYC’s most elite independent day schools and having written on private school finances (http://www.epicpolicy.org/files/PB-Baker-PvtFinance.pdf) . But sadly, my actual knowledge of Charters and Private schools makes it harder, not easier to accept Bowdon’s poorly conceived arguments.

On Charters: Bowdon points to a few specific charter schools that are doing very well compared to other schools. Great. Some schools do better than others. I’m good with that. But, Bowdon seems to argue that because these few schools are good, all charters are good – certainly better than any traditional public school. Therefore, it is an outrage that the state of NJ won’t simply throw the doors wide open to more charters to accommodate the tear filled rooms of parents awaiting their chance at the opportunity to send their kids to one of the many outstanding charter schools. Here’s the glitch in this logic. I explain here (link below) that the average performance of Charter schools is statistically no different from the average performance of poor traditional public schools in NJ. Yes, some are better and many, many are much worse. The chances that a student in a charter is not in a low performing school are only marginally (very marginally) better than for students in the poorest (comparably poor) traditional public schools. While some charter school research shows strong positive results, the balance of that research shows a break-even, on average (see my post: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/10/20/a-few-quick-nj-charter-school-facts-figures/) and NJ charters are no different.

For updated and more extensive analysis of NJ charter schools, see: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/category/new-jersey-charter-schools/

Convincing inner city families that Charter schools will save their children simply because they are charter schools and therefore they must be better than traditional public schools is disingenuous at best. I have no problem whatsoever arguing that parents should have the option to choose a “better” school and should be provided reasonable information to aid them in choosing a legitimately better option for their children. Information is the ultimate equalizer here. Contributing to and/or concocting misinformation – creating a “market for lemons” by distorting information – when the stakes are this high – merely to advance a political agenda and build reputation as a supposed “documentary” film producer is morally repugnant.

Finally, on the private school voucher side of the argument: Like I said, I’m a big fan of private schools and I’ve seen what money can buy in the best of private schools. By the way, I report here on the actual per pupil spending of private schools by the affiliation of those schools (https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/08/18/private-school-spending/). When it comes to private schools, like Charter schools or traditional public schools, you get what you pay for, and the average per pupil spending (not tuition, but actual spending) in private independent day schools in New Jersey hovered around $25,000 to over $30,000 in 2007. Urban Catholic school per pupil spending is on par with Charter spending, and only conservative religious schools spend much less. Note that Catholic schools, like Charter schools are struggling these days to operate at such low expense (around $12k per pupil). Providing vouchers at levels similar to charter funding would ensure that the only choices available to parents would be financially struggling Catholic schools or conservative religious schools. There would be no religious neutrality in the options available. Private independent schools would remain well out of reach. Double the voucher level and you might get somewhere, but demand for slots would likely far outpace supply (see for a fun paper on price elasticity and private school attendance: http://www.nber.org/~dynarski/w15461.pdf). Under-subsidized vouchers are a cruel hoax, like distorting information on the true variance in charter school quality.

There are other potential forms of choice here, which are noticeably absent in Bowdon’s arguments (unless I’m missing something). Hey, look at my graph of school performance by DFG in my charter school post:  https://schoolfinance101.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/updated-charter-rel-performance.jpg Wouldn’t it be nice to provide open enrollment choice options for kids from the urban core to attend the high performing affluent suburban schools? Why should we only let them choose from the relatively average, under-resourced charter or religious private schools? Seems a little unfair, don’t you think? Seems a little disingenuous to argue that choice will solve our problems as long as we only let the poor minority children in the urban core attend start-up charter schools in church basements and other makeshift rental properties (since the slots in the elite, high performing charters are taken) and low tuition, low spending exclusively religious private schools. You wouldn’t want to include all of those higher performing traditional public schools a few NJ transit stops away.

Summary

So, here it is in a nutshell:

  1. Even if there is a crisis, Bowdon provides no legitimate evidence of one, and in fact, provides laughable claims that make it hard to take him seriously at all;
  2. Since there is no validated crisis, there is no need for a solution, but Bowdon offers one anyway;
  • Instead of attending NJ’s dreadful traditional public schools, students should flock to NJ’s outstanding charter schools, which, it turns out, have average performance the same as the poorest NJ traditional public schools, or
  • NJ children should be provided vouchers at levels that will allow them only to select from cash strapped urban religious private schools.

Seems reasonable enough. Ill-conceived? Intellectually vacuous? Schlockumentary? I must stop myself.

As a professor of school finance who lives every day immersed in national and state databases on school funding and student outcomes and who has advised many national organizations on the development of indicator systems for comparing schools/districts and states, Bowdon’s presentation of “shocking statistics” is quite honestly the most offensive, absurd and amateur presentation I have ever witnessed – regardless of political angle.

Cheers.