Filmmaker Bob Bowdon opens up about Christie-endorsed public school documentary ‘The Cartel’

“The movie so succinctly, and so colorfully lays out what went on in the New Jersey education system that it’s not only really informative and really has helped me, but it’s also really entertaining on top of it.”

With an endorsement like that from New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, it’s no wonder the documentary “The Cartel” has had so much success.

The film, an investigative look at public schools in New Jersey, received critical acclaim when it was released in select cities back in April. Among its awards are the 2009 Audience Award at the Hoboken International Film Festival, the 2010 Audience Award at the Atlanta International Documentary Film Festival, and the Visionary Award and Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 2010 Washington D.C. Independent Film Festival.

And with the DVD release set for today, “The Cartel” is just beginning to fully reach its potential audience. So when the filmmaker, Bob Bowdon, was in the nation’s capital for a summit on education reform (with Christie as the keynote speaker), The Daily Caller thought it was the perfect time to catch up with the man who voluntarily took on the powerful New Jersey Education Association (NJEA).

No stranger to investigative reporting, Bowdon spent the first half of his career as a producer, host, and reporter on cable TV. He gave up his last job as a reporter for Bloomberg Television to work on “The Cartel” — a significant risk at the time.

“Eventually in a career there comes a time to really strike out and do what you want,” Bowdon told TheDC when asked about his career move. “Instead of just being assigned stories the network thinks needs to be covered that day.”

“Plus, I did a few education stories along the way and was outraged by what I found,” he added, before describing how the final catalyst for him was when a friend got a job at an inner-city high school and began sharing stories. “That was the final kick in the butt,” said Bowdon.

From the first interview to the first film festival, the documentary took about two and-a-half years. It was entirely self-financed, and in the beginning, Bowdon was the sole employee of his production company, Bowdon Media.

“Some friends would help out as a favor,” Bowdon recalled, chuckling. “Along the way I got an intern who I kind of taught how to shoot.”

With the tone of a 20/20 or Dateline special, “The Cartel” looks at every aspect of public schools in New Jersey, the state that spends the most money per classroom. But as Bowdon revealed, the more than $300,000 spent on each class has had little effect on test scores. Thus Bowdon, in “The Cartel,” tires to figure out what happens between when the time when the state writes the check and the school opens its doors.

What he found isn’t pretty: a powerful teachers’ union, corrupt school boards, exorbitant administrative salaries, lousy teachers, blind opposition to school choice, and frustrated parents. “I don’t know where the money’s going,” said one parent whose child attended a failing school. “The equipment is destroyed, there’s graffiti everywhere.”