In the year 2010, there were 365,000 children on waitlists to attend charter schools across the United States. A poignant documentary that provides a look at the education system in Harlem, New York, The Lottery places a special emphasis on charter schools in New York City School District 5, namely the Harlem Success Academy. We watch as Eric Roachford, Jr., Gregory Goodwine, Jr., Nadiyah Horne, and Christian Yoanson, five-year-old charter school hopefuls, and their parents wait the agonizing two months before “the lottery,” the random drawing of applicants that decides who will attend the Harlem Success Academy and who will attend one of the public schools in District 5. The documentary includes testimonials from a handful of educators and political figures that are prominent individuals in the education system, including Harlem Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz.
All children are capable of success. Moskowitz and other proponents of charter school education argue that the current system employed in the United States does not provide students with fair and equal learning opportunities. The Lottery illuminates the achievement gap between students of different racial groups, citing the four-year disparity between white and black students: “The average black 12th grader performs as well as the average white 8th grader” (The Lottery 0:02:49) and “58% of black 4th graders are functionally illiterate” (The Lottery 0:03:06). Nevertheless, Moskowitz suggests that students of every race, background, and circumstance can, as her school’s motto suggests, become college graduates. The message is clear: the system is flawed the children are not. Every student deserves a phenomenal education, and if they are allowed one, they can achieve great success.
The overarching debate concerns the benefits and disadvantages of the choice movement and charter schools versus the public school system. The theory depicted in The Lottery on school reform is that public education is subpar and the problems lie with teachers’ inadequacies rather than the shortcomings of students or unsupportive, disinterested parents. Short-lived school reform programs have been implemented in public schools time and time again with unsatisfying results. There is a need to shut down failing public schools, according to filmmakers, and the presence of charter schools in districts with floundering public schools is a way to increase parental choice and student achievement.
The film includes shots of every day life in Harlem, endearing clips of teachers engaging their young students, and most powerfully, a public hearing in Harlem full of passionate parents and educators debating what is right for District 5. These scenes are so crucial because they demonstrate the reality of the situation and remind viewers that this is fact not fiction.
There is a point of view notably absent from this documentary. The only perspective viewers get on those who disagree with the establishment of charter schools is that of an aggressive, hostile opposition. The documentary paints those who combat the charter school movement as uninformed and irrational. The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), for example, vehemently oppose the charter school movement. Although ACORN is now defunct, at the time of filming, protesters gathered in the streets of Harlem vilifying the charter school movement and those who encourage it. The Teachers’ Union in New York City is also portrayed in a very negative light. Moskowitz accuses the UFT of utilizing “Godfather tactics” to bully anyone who opposes their views. Due to the size of the union, democratic politicians cannot possibly win elections without its support, making the Union a force to be reckoned with. The Lottery does not adequately provide the audience with an objective look at this side of the debate. The film is borderline propagandistic in favor of charter schools due to its one-sided nature.
Nevertheless, the film is moving. As viewers get to see the personal lives of four Harlem families, emotional attachment to these smiling five-year-olds becomes impossible to avoid. The filmmakers do a wonderful job at showing viewers that, contrary to public belief; parents in failing school districts are not always the problem. In fact, many of these parents are driven to help their children succeed. In an interview with film critic Thelma Adams, director Madeleine Sackler explains, “What gives me the most hope is the reason I made the movie: there are so many parents that are eager for something better” (Adams 1). At the very end of the documentary, viewers are called to action; called to “Mentor Teach Donate Vote” (The Lottery1:16:53), and in that moment you will never have wanted to do that quite so badly.
Adams, Thelma. “Charter School Controversy: A Q&A With The Lottery Director Madeleine Sackler.” The Huffington Post. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.
“FAQs: Frequently Asked Questions About Charter Schools.” California Charter Schools Association. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.
Sackler, Madeleine, dir. The Lottery. 2010. Film.