If Bob Bowdon's documentary

The Cartel

is to be believed - and the news anchor-turned-Internet marketeer makes a strong case - New Jersey's public school system is, indeed, about learning your ABCs.

Except that the A stands for avarice, B for bureaucracy, C for corruption.

An alarming portrait of a state that pours more money per pupil into its public school system than any of the other 49 and yet continues to turn out underperforming students with substandard educations, The Cartel does what good reporters are supposed to do: follow the money. It also tallies up the fleet of Mercedeses, Infinitis, and other luxury vehicles parked outside the Jersey City Board of Education. There are plenty.

What the film reveals is that New Jersey's 611 (yes, 611!) school districts are larded with highly paid administrators and support personnel. Literally billions of dollars have gone missing - in construction funds, and in payouts to ghost organizations and phantom employees. And thanks to a teachers' union that seems more interested in protecting its members' jobs than in raising the level of work they do, it's virtually impossible for a teacher in a New Jersey public school to be fired, no matter how egregiously bad, or even abusive, he or she might be.

Bowdon interviews administrators and union officials to get their responses, but the responses seem pretty weak.

The Cartel (a title that doesn't serve the film well) lays out its facts clearly, and Bowdon - while no Michael Moore (and maybe that's a good thing) - asks the right questions. New Jersey taxpayers, and the state's political leaders, need to see this documentary. And then they need to do something besides throw more money at an embarrassing, and startling, problem.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/