Luck of the Draw: Charter School Lottery Brings Joy and Heartbreak

Article excerpt

The Lottery (2010)

Directed by Madeleine Sackler

As reviewed by Mark Bauerlein

Charter schools don't play by union rules. So when Harlem Success Academy, a charter group in New York, proposed to take over P.S. 194's building after the school was shut down for poor performance, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the New York Civil Liberties Union took the obvious step: they filed a lawsuit claiming that the state pressed forward without proper consultation with local school boards.

Such resistance has dogged the school choice movement for years, producing a fog of politics cleared all too rarely by moments of forthrightness. Clearing some of the fog is The Lottery, a new documentary film by Madeleine Sackler that tracks four families hoping to enroll their kids in one of the Harlem Success charter schools. During the film's 79 minutes, we watch UFT president Randi Weingarten on the Charlie Rose Show blurt out "No!" to Rose's assertion that only 10 of 55,000 tenured teachers in the New York City school system were fired the previous year. (The U.S. Dept. of Education counts, precisely, 10.) We witness ACORN workers armed with megaphones fill the sidewalk outside a charter school meeting protesting the very existence of charters in the community. We hear again how the average black 12th grader performs as well as the average white 8th grader. On and on.

These familiar facts and events form a galling and sad backdrop for the real story of the film, parents desperate to find a better school. For them, it means a route away from poverty and despair, even prison. "I just want my daughter to have the best in life," signs a deaf mother who dropped out of high school to help her grandmother. One father sits in a cell serving 25 to life. Tears in his eyes, he moans that if only someone had entered his life early on and steered him toward college, or had just given him some faith in his own intellect, he wouldn't be there.

Harlem Success teachers do just that. …