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Conference Says Choice is the Solution to Poorly Performing Schools in NJ

The creator of a controversial documentary on NJ schools is holding a conference in East Windsor this weekend, open to anyone with questions about the school choice movement.


School choice is an issue that's coming into its own in New Jersey, and Hoboken resident and filmmaker Bob Bowdon has had something to do with that.

"The Cartel", Bowdon's award-winning 2009 documentary on what he sees as the low quality and runaway spending of the state's schools, has had a large part in changing the conversation on how schools should operate.

That question is going to be the centerpiece in one of the first-ever conferences on school choice in New Jersey. That conference, the New Jersey School Choice Summit, takes place this Sunday, January 27, from 3 pm to 6 pm at the Central New Jersey Conference Center at the Holiday Inn in East Windsor.

"It's going to be kind of cool," Bowdon said. "Ordinary people can ask questions of anyone at the conference."

Anyone can attend for the $2 price of admission, and talk to a wide range of experts and enthusiasts about the pros and cons of school choice.

The group in attendance is going to be some of the state's educational power hitters, including NJ Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, among state senators and education groups, all with different viewpoints than the traditional one that has New Jersey paying the highest per pupil cost in the country, and according to Bowdon, with little to show for it.

Bureaucratic bloat

"Why do we need 616 school districts in New Jersey?" Bowdon said, pointing to Maryland, a similarly small but densely populated state, which makes do with 24 districts.

All that extra bloat of administrators, technicians, support workers, Bowdon said, means that the educational bureaucracy in each of the districts costs a fortune. It also means that that money isn't going into the classroom to teach kids. It also doesn't even begin to touch on corruption, bribery, and cheating scandals, such as the ones that have rocked Woodbridge in the past year.

The huge number of school districts is "this strange, archaic legacy," he said, making the administration spending little more than "a jobs program" to keep bureaucrats employed.

"The Cartel" lays out a dizzying array of statistics that is sure to get any parent or taxpayer steamed. [The documentary is being shown free on Hulu.]

In the Maryland example, Bowdon says that each of that state's 24 districts serves 35,000 students, compared to an average in New Jersey's 616 districts of 2,300 students. That means that New Jersey has 15 times as many administrators and other support staff as Maryland, along with all the costs, including salaries, pensions, and benefits.

The premise of the School Choice conference, Bowdon said, is that "there are all different kinds of schools run by different groups, and it's no different than any other aspect of life. We have choice with everything from cell phones to airlines to a university education. Why should there be just a single provider of public school education? Why should there be just a 'one size fits all' solution?"

NJEA is a foe

Of the various groups and individuals attending the School Choice conference, the notable absence is of any members of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA).

When Bowdon's documentary came out, the NJEA went into attack mode, he said.

"Their attacks were so ad hominem. There is not a single statistic [from the documentary] that has ever been questioned or [an allegation that a] quote was out of context in the film. It was only that I was a bad guy or not a legitimate journalist," Bowdon said. "No wonder they're losing."

The NJEA could not be reached in time for this report. They did put out a release after the debut of "The Cartel" that purported to expose the free market, libertarian connections behind Bowdon and his film.

Bowdon, who chairs the Choice group, is a former Bloomberg News anchor and reporter. He has also written satire for The Onion, a popular online site for faux news.

The NJEA release seemed to have taken The Onion credential seriously: Bowdon, they said, is a "fictitious correspondent on the made-up Onion News Network: his resume describes his work as a “reporter of comedic, fake news” for Onion.

Christie and school choice

Far from being the right wing conspiracy the NJEA purports his organization to be, Bowdon pointed to Cerf, a lifelong Democrat appointed by Republican Governor Chris Christie.

The Choice panel includes four members of the New Jersey legislature: two Republicans - State Senator Michael Doherty and Assemblyman Tony Bucco;  and two Democrats - Assemblymen Gary Schaer and Gabriela Mosquera.

The governor, Bowdon said, "is on board with school choice, particularly for urban districts. His emphasis lately is for towns  who 'need it', which he defines as low performing districts. He's been supportive of those efforts."

Bowdon has also taken aim at the massive funding the 31 Abbott school districts receive. His own town, Hoboken, is on the list of Abbott districts, which are defined by the NJ Supreme Court as poorer urban districts or special needs district in need of state funding to bring them up to the rest of the state school districts.

"Hoboken has a higher per-capita income than dozens of other towns who aren't on the Abbott list. Then there's Garfield in wealthy Bergen County. They wanted some money, too, so they got on the list," he said. Which districts got on the Abbott list was a matter of "political horse trading done at that time. Everyone wanted their share of the money."

The whole tenent of school choice is that "parents get to decide. 

"If parents are happy, not a single thing changes. The kids stay where they are, all the dollars stay where they are," Bowdon said. "Only if parents want to leave and go to a different school, the money should follow the kid."

He doesn't think he's wrong, either, judging by what he said are the minority parents clamoring for a different educational experience for their children.

"Look at the black and hispanic parents who line up by the millions to get their kids into charter schools. I just point to all those parents who want to get out of the system."

The NJ School Choice Summit is this Sunday in East Windsor. The cost is $2, and registration is required. To sign up, go to this link.

Bowdon's documentary, "The Cartel," is being shown free on Hulu. To watch it, go to this link.

Sal April 16, 2013 at 12:36 PM
All the finger pointing in the entire World has absolutely nothing to do with REALITY. Children from poor families under-preform. Children from single parent households under-perform. Children of higher educated wealthier parents do better in school. The higher economic class and wealthier higher income that any school district is __the better the children perform in school. "Peer Pressure" plays a larger roll in a child's life than parents or teachers after age 12. That 14 to 17 year old kid in Newark or Camden is not going to tell his friends I cannot play basketball today because I have to get my homework done.
Sal April 16, 2013 at 12:45 PM
All SMART people have unions or Associations that they belong to for the betterment of the entire group. To name just a few: The Manufacturers Assoc., The Lumberman's Association, The Trial Lawyers Assoc., The American Medical Association, The Cattleman's Association, The Dairyman's Association, The Realtor's Association and these Corporate Associations pay dues and they make $$ Billions of dollars in campaign contributions and spend billions more on lobbying costs each year to get what they want. . All SMART people have unions or associations and all Dummies do not.
Sal April 16, 2013 at 12:59 PM
What we have is a bunch of people here that are posting messages that are a display of their Ignorance on this issue (By the way ignorance means 'lack of knowledge" just in case you did not know). The Private Charter schools actually pay their teachers HIGHER wages to attract good teachers "away from the Public Schools". The Charter schools do not grow their own special superior teachers on trees or create their own teachers in test tubes. When the Charter schools have open enrollments and they do not 'Hand Pick' the students that they allow to enroll __there is no difference in child performance. The only times the Private Charter schools out-perform the Public Schools is when they Hand Pick which students they allow to enroll and only accept children that are already performing 'above average'.
Sal April 16, 2013 at 01:11 PM
"Peer Pressure" means far more to children in school than good teachers or good parents. In poor school districts ___achieving at an above average grade level and being a A+ student is viewed by their peers as a big negative in the eyes of their student peers making them very unpopular __ the subject of ridicule and seen as outcasts by their fellow students. Like it or not ___That is Reality and we are all powerless to change "Peer Pressure". Kids all over the USA commit suicide everyday because of Peer Pressure. We see the news headlines all of the time "Harlem or Newark or Camden___ Honor Student shot down on the street".
NorasTea Party April 16, 2013 at 04:27 PM
Sal, Well said. Peer Pressure is a powerful motivator. According to Maslow <father of modern sociology> being a "member of a group" (accepted, recognized, & status) are THE #2-3 & 4 human motivators. Safety/Shelter - #1. . To keep my daughter in line all I had to do was threaten to come to school in a Barney costume. <grin> That big purple dinosaur. Just the THOUGHT of being embarrassed in front of her school mates was enough. LOL . All HUMANS, little one or big ones, function according to motivations for acceptance from the society they live in. When it's acceptable to walk around with pants around knees, that is what they do, or purple hair, or piercings. OR how they behave in educational environments. . It's up to ADULTS to set the level's of acceptable behavior and teach it to the kids. That DUNCE CAP worked! It worked to straighten kids out, like the chair in the hall for "time out". Embarrass the tikes and they straighten up real fast..

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