The Cartel: Education + Politics = Money
They don't call it the Soprano State for nothing.
If you thought New Jersey's corruption stopped with the politicians and the Mob, think again. The Garden State's Department of Education is so corrupt that it makes its reality stars look squeaky clean.
Second to New York, New Jersey spends the most money per pupil than any other state in the nation. It is also one of the worst taxpayer sinkholes in the country. While the average teacher costs the state $55,000 per year, the cost per classroom can run upwards of $430,000.
Where, might you be wondering, does that extra $380,000 go?
That's what The Cartel—a compelling new documentary by TV reporter Bob Bowdon that opened last week—seeks to uncover. In a dizzying slate of interviews with administrators, teachers, parents, and students, Bowdon paints a picture of "rampant, pervasive, institutional" corruption in a state that's mired in the "school district business."
To wit: New Jersey has 616 school districts averaging 2,300 students per district, while nearby Maryland (a comparable state in terms of size and population) has just 24 school districts that average around 35,000 students. That might not seem like a big deal until you consider it means that taxpayers are paying for 616 superintendents (and all the attendant administration costs that go along with it).
In the past decade alone, the Pleasantville Public Schools have cycled through 13 superintendents and the U.S. Attorney's office has indicted five members of it's school board on corruption counts. In another district, a superintendent was given a $741,000 severance payout on top of his $120,000 per year pension. When the enormity of his parachute was challenged, they finally settled for $556,000.
And if you're an honest teacher trying to stand up to the corruption, think again. Paula Veggian, who spent 40 years as an educator in Camden and blew the whistle on grade inflation, was demoted and transferred to another school over Christmas vacation. (She was later offered her old job back after her lawyer filed a federal lawsuit against the school district.)
Meanwhile, Beverly Jones from the Trenton Central High School, who in 2004 was named the best history teacher in the state, received a public apology after her reports of phantom salaries (paid to teachers who don't exist) and competent 9th graders being held back a grade to fill seats in a new "repeater" program were proven true.
"They cannot afford to stand up to administrators," Jones tells Bowdon in the documentary. If they could, she continues, "They would say the children are not the focus, the money is the focus, and what happens to the money no one knows."
The New Jersey Education Association has arguably put the biggest stranglehold on the system. From vehemently opposing merit pay and vouchers, which would undoubtedly hurt their bottom line even if they gave students better school options, while endorsing patronage jobs, "rubber room" type strangleholds keep bad teacher's from getting fired. (In the past decade only one of 10,000 teachers in Bergen County has gone through a tenure hearing process.) In fact, in 2008 the NJDOE blocked 21 out of 22 applications for charter schools, most of those on technicalities that amounted to nothing more than forgetting a pair of parentheses on an exhaustive 100-plus page application.
In short, The Cartel presents NJEA as an egregious, hubristic union that seems intent on trampling over innovation for the sake of pensions and tenure. All this while running ads (yes, teachers running ads) boasting about their overly-inflated graduation rates even though less than 40% of the state's 8th graders are proficient in reading and math.
And if you think this is limited to New Jersey, think again. Much like the drug cartels, this enterprise is national. But instead of running coke and pot on the backs of mules, running their careers and get-rich-quick scams on the backs of your children.
Michael Slenske is a writer who is based in New York.