Madeleine Sackler’s The Lottery describes the conflict between public schools and charter schools, one of the hottest issues in American public education. She shows the two contrasting views on charter schools. On one side, there are thousands of parents who are eager to send their children to charter schools for a better education. On the other side, teachers union in public schools strongly oppose them and trying to prevent them from increasing their capacity. In order to show this contrast, the film follows four families in Harlem, New York, whose children apply to the lottery to get into the Harlem Success Academy, a thriving charter school in NYC. The film describes different perceptions about charter schools with strong favor of them, and it tempts people to conclude that charter schools are good, and public schools are bad. However, despite the one-sided point of view, this film has a significant message for all the viewers regardless their opinion on charter schools: children are being neglected while educators and politicians are fighting for their own sakes. The problem in education is not children or parents, but the adults who are controlling the system.
In the American public education system, there are public schools and charter schools. Both are publically funded by state taxes. The difference is that public schools follow the government’s regulation and are tied to teachers union contracts whereas charter schools are free from unions and have more autonomy in school management.
Since many public schools in Harlem have failed, and charter schools have been the key to education reform for the last two decades, serving as an alternative to poor-performing public schools in the city. In the film The Lottery, charter schools encourage teachers to work harder and to pay more attention to their students while parents are asked to actively get involved in schools. The movie shows that they have accomplished significant improvements in students’ performance. Watching both successful stories of charter schools and failures of public schools, many parents turn their eyes to the more promising one. However, due to their limited capacity, charter schools have to select their students by lottery, as prescribed in the federal law.
Some blame children or their careless parents for the failure of Harlem’s education system. However, the filmmaker makes a strong point that they are not the ones causing the schools’ failures. According to the Huffington Post, Sackler says, “what gives me the most hope is the reason I made the movie: there are so many parents that are eager for something better” (Thelma Adams). Lower class parents are interested in good education as much as, or even more than, middle and upper class parents. Lower class parents are desperate for the good education because they believe that lack of education blocks them from being successful.
Each of the four families introduced in the film are going through difficulties: Eric Jr. Roachford, whose mother is schooling their kids by herself; Gregory Goodwine Jr, whose father is in prison and lives with his mother; Ammenah Horne, whose single parent mother has speaking disability; Christian Yohanson, whose family members are scattered in Africa and in America. Despite these tough circumstances, they all express that they want good education for their kids. In The Lottery, Eric’s mother says, “I am looking for a school that is going to look at my child and see what his strengths and weaknesses are and teach him according to those weaknesses” (Sackler 6:02).
The film delivers the message that not only parents, but also children cannot be an excuse for failing schools. The filmmaker uses Harlem Success Academy to prove that students’ inability is not the problem in education. Once high quality education was provided by Harlem Success, 100% of students passed the state exam, and their enhancement rate in literacy and math has been remarkable. Meanwhile, the film displays many shots of innocent children, such as children with a smile and curious face, and these lead viewers to consider children as victims, not the causes of educational problems.
Parents’ inattention or children’s inability are not the issue. Rather, the fundamental problem in education system is what Eva Moskowitz, the CEO of Harlem Success Academy, calls, “union-political-educational complex”. Moskowitz says that the problem is not children or parents, but “the system that protests academic failure and limits the choices that parents have” (Sackler 10:12). Public schools are bound with teachers union, and unions exists to protect the rights of teachers for a better learning environment. Despite its purpose, the union ends up hindering public schools from being improved. The union contract sets all the rules for teachers, and schools have no powers over the contract. It prevents schools from requiring longer prep hours for classes or firing poor-performing, unmotivated. Making matters worse, as people in the union consider charter school as threats to them, they obstruct the growth of charter schools and make it harder to provide good education to more students.
As a result of the strong opposition of the teachers union against charter schools, educators in charter schools and public schools fight each other while neglecting real issues that need attention. A space hearing about moving Harlem Success Academy is given as an example of the fight. Six weeks before the lottery, there was a public meeting about the proposal to move Harlem Success Academy II to the public school that is closing due to low-performance. For the Harlem Success Academy, it was very crucial to assure that they had enough capacity for students chosen from the lottery. Parents, who are sending their kids to public schools, are upset and offensively reject the Harlem Success Academy’s moving in because they think that the charter schools threaten their community by taking over their public school. However, it turns out that the union hires the organization called ACORN and asks them to protest, pretending as if they are people in the community. Without knowing the real story, people in the local community are deceived that charter schools are their enemy.
Although the filmmaker points out the negative impact of the teachers union and the advantages of charter schools, her arguments have holes. In the example of the space hearing, the film only presents the situation from the charter school’s perspective. Harlem Academy has made surprising improvements, but this does not justify neglecting the existing community. Public schools play an important role to bind people together in a community, and this is as important as enhancing the quality of education. In addition, the filmmaker portrays charter schools as if they are the only answer for the problem, and she does not show negative aspects of charter schools. According to the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) in Stanford University, only 17% of charter schools in the United States succeeded better than traditional public schools; 43% showed no difference from public schools; 37% were actually worse than public schools in 2009 (CREDO 1). In reality, not all charter schools are as successful as Harlem Success Academy. If the filmmaker wanted to truly describe charter schools, the film should have formed claims more objectively, noting both advantages and disadvantages of them.
At the end of the film is the most significant moment when the lottery takes place. At this point, all the viewers would come to the same conclusion that something needs to be done for those kids whose future is determined by random selection regardless of their abilities or efforts. It is too cruel for children to wait for luck to attend a good school. When lottery-winners’ names are called, they look as happy as if they already achieved success; on the other hand, parents of those who are not chosen look hopeless. Their kids do not know why their parents are so depressed. The four families’ reactions to the lottery result are dramatized with emotional background music and tears of parents and kids. Watching this scene, nobody would deny that the victims of grown-ups’ conflicts are children, the hope of our future. Even though the film has many arguable points, The Lottery leaves the message that people need to recognize and take action in order to help children to have a good education beyond arguing and fighting over charter schools versus teachers unions.
Adams, Thelma. Charter School Controversy: A Q&A With The Lottery Director Madeleine dddddSackler.” The Huffington Post. N. p., 15 June. 2010. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.
Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) Stanford University. Multiple dddddChoice: Charter School Performance in 16 States. CREDO. Stanford University, dddddJune 2009. Web. 23 Feb. 2014. <http://credo.stanford.edu>.
Sackler, Madeleine. The Lottery. 2010. Film.