Given the recent announcement that New York State was raising its cap on charter schools from 200 to more than 400 -- in an effort to win more than $700 million in federal education funds from the "Race to the Top" program -- Madeleine Sackler's The Lottery couldn't be timelier.
Sackler's documentary, opening in limited release Friday, follows a handful of Harlem families, who are literally forced to rely on the luck of the draw to ensure their preschool children's education prospects. Specifically, each family puts the child's name into a lottery for one of fewer than 500 spots at one of Harlem's charter school marvels, the Harlem Success Academy. They are among more than 3,400 families competing for the same spots -- so they have a 1 in 7 chance.
The attraction of the charter schools, of course, is their ability to focus on the students, instead of on the rules of the teachers' contract, as mandated by the teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers. That contract, among other things, limits the amount of preparation time in a teacher's day, where the Success Academy encourages significantly more prep.
Even as the film highlights the charter school's successes (one man talks about how his younger daughter -- who goes to a charter school -- helps teach her older sibling, who goes to a failing public school, how to read). Expert witnesses, including Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New York schools chancellor Joel Klein, talk about the reasons these schools succeed where other schools fail.
Sackler also examines the politics of the issue, as driven by the teachers' union. The union strong-arms democratic politicians for support, even as it strikes a pro-labor, pro-worker stance to pull neighborhood activists into protests against charter schools.
It's scary to listen to the misinformed anger -- that the charter schools are destroying the neighborhoods or privatizing education -- in pubic forums, including one to discuss allowing the Harlem Success Academy to take over a failed Harlem public school that is being shuttered.
Ultimately, however, The Lottery is about the children -- young, impressionable, eager to learn and, often, ignored in the knock-down drag-outs between the unions and the charter schools (most of which are nonunion). In that sense, The Lottery raises a number of serious questions that should provoke discussion, as long as public money is being spent on schools that are ill-serving our children and forcing parents to cross their fingers and hope they'll be lucky in their attempt to find their children a brighter future.