As documentaries go, Madeleine Sackler’s study of public charter schools in New York City’s Harlem, The Lottery, is an emotionally draining attack on the failure of the educational establishment, politicians local and national, and most especially the teachers’ unions to promote a school system that looks at the needs of children as its main priority. It is not an attempt to objectively present the many sides of what may be a very complicated issue. It has a definite point of view, and while it does look at some of those who disagree, in the end it is very clear where its sympathies lie. That said, it does present a very compelling argument.
Essentially the film follows four families who have entered their young children in the annual lottery held for admission into one of the Harlem charter schools, in this case the Harlem Success Academy. Each spring the city holds this lottery, because the applications to these schools far exceed the number of students for whom there is space. Children who are not chosen in the lottery will have to attend the traditional public schools in their zone, many of which are considered failing, or else private institutions if their parents can afford the tuition.
The four families—an immigrant from Africa and his son, a single handicapped mother and her daughter, a college graduate whose husband is incarcerated and her son, and a bus driver and his wife with two young boys—would seem to reflect a variety of economic situations. The handicapped mother lives in an apartment that is almost empty of furniture. There are a couple of folding chairs, a floor lamp and a TV, little else is visible. The bus driver and his wife and the college graduate seem to be doing much better materially. The African immigrant seems to fall somewhere in between. All four of the families are thoroughly committed to the care and education of their children. They are shown working with them on things like reading and arithmetic. Books and educational toys are available. These are not parents who are letting their children run wild. They want a better life for their children, and they feel that a good education is the best way to get that better life.
It is nearly impossible not to identify with these people, after all what they want is simply to realize what is essentially the American dream, and clearly they believe that a school like the Harlem Success Academy is the road to that dream. Moreover, clearly the filmmakers agree. The charter school is held up as a successful model to correct the problems in public education. Teachers and staff are dedicated. They work harder. They work longer hours. They are completely committed to their students. They are not bound by restrictive collective bargaining agreements that dictate and micro manage work rules so they can adapt to student needs quickly. They are not contractually bound to ineffective teachers. And they have numbers, statistics to demonstrate that what they do works.
As with the typical documentary there are talking heads in abundance, but there are some differences. It is not only the professionals and the politicians. True they are here: there is Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, educational reformer Geoffrey Canada, Eva Moskowitz, the founder of the Harlem Success Academy and a fierce advocate for the charter schools, teachers and administrators, Joel Klein, the Chancellor of the New York City School System. But the really effective voices are those of the parents: the father in prison who speaks with tears in his eyes, the mother who speaks in sign language, the father who thanks God for blessing him with a son after he was a stroke victim. For these people, this is not an idealistic quest, for these people this is life and death.
While those with other views are presented, whatever impact they have is negative. The leader of the teacher’s union is shown equivocating in an interview with Charlie Rose. Politicians at a hearing over space for a new charter school seem to be pandering to the union. An Acorn protest rally against space for the school seems to be little more than a lot of unreasonable noise. A city advocate seems more interested in protecting teachers than in correcting the problems. Whether they have a case or not, as presented in The Lottery these are the villains. Even local parents protesting against the school seem to be misguided as they are pictured in the film.
The mantra of the film is that parents should have the right to choose the educational system they want for their children. Options shouldn’t depend on how much money a family has or what part of the city they live in. “Zip code determines your destiny,” someone says. “It shouldn’t be that way.” No matter what side of the issue you’re on, The Lottery is a film you ought to see.
The DVD includes a panel discussion from the Tribeca Film Festival with the director, Chancellor Klein, Eva Moskowitz, and others. There are also a number of deleted scenes, all snippets of interviews with either some of the talking heads, or in some cases what seem to be simply man in the street comments. There is also a trailer and selections from some of the press critiques.