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 theCentral 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.
"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.