Madeleine Sackler’s The Lottery wholeheartedly expresses the urgent need to support local charter schools. Specifically, the film illustrates this urgency through the failed attempt to establish Harlem Success Academy 2, in New York City (0:56:56). The documentary highlights how Harlem Success, and the broader charter school movement are determined to end cycles of poverty by turning around America’s failing education system. Moreover, the film emphasizes how charter schools only have a limited capacity to admit a small portion of students who apply to enroll in schools like Harlem Success via lottery, which is a public event that gives everyone in a designated school district an equal opportunity to benefit from a high-impact tuition-free charter school education. The need for charter school reform is realistic and evident throughout the vivid imagery of rundown communities and large prisons. The film explains how there are up to four year “achievement gaps” (0:02:53) in education among different schools, races and minorities, and that people expect and plan for a percentage of these underserved students to go to prison. Despite the film’s effective display of the need for education reform, my thesis is that, the documentary is harmful to the broader education reform movement, because it creates enemies and further divides partisan interests and beliefs.
The need for charter schools is at the forefront of every edited clip, and the counterarguments displayed by public school advocates are weak to none. The Teachers Union and local government officials are demonized and pinned as the enemies of education reform, while charter school advocates and parents shed tears, share heartfelt anecdotes and pray to God that they will receive a spot at Harlem Success. The documentary opens by explaining the proven success of charter schools across America, then asks: “why don’t we have more of them [charter schools]?” (0:03:38) The question is raised in many different forms throughout the film, and is indirectly answered by pointing fingers at those who prevent the growth of charter schools. Among every modified scene and statement, the entire film is designed to meet its ending message: (Sackler, 1:16:54).
As a result, the targeted audience seems to be uninformed community members or participants in America’s education system, because public schools advocates and those who are actively engaged in educational policy will probably not be persuaded by the subjective nature of the film.
In summary, the focal points of the film: schools, parents, students and low-income communities, implicitly align with the charter school movement’s theory of change: If schools have excellent high-performing teachers, proactive parents, and the larger community provides support, space and funding, then any student from any neighborhood can achieve at the same or higher academic levels when compared to their wealthier counterparts, and will move on to earn a college degree. However, the United Federation of Teachers, local government and protests by local organizations such as Acorn, are restricting the opportunity for an equal education and alternative schooling options in low-income districts. Meanwhile, 365,000 struggling students who deserve a better education hopefully wait for a chance to reserve their seat at a charter school.
Throughout the film, the Teachers Union and local government are shown to be the antagonists of education reform and equality. President Obama addresses the need to fix America’s achievement gap, and his comments imply that local governments are to blame for widening the opportunity gap. The film supports its argument with evidence from a recording in 2008, when the President of the Teachers Union, Randi Weingarten, says there should be a “due process procedure” (0:19:50) for firing underperforming teachers, and then seemingly lies about the amount of tenured teachers fired that year. At a City Council hearing on charter school expansion, Eva Moskowitz, the founder of Harlem Success, silences a council member after he attributes her schools’ success to its class sizes (0:52:53), and makes another council member appear untrustworthy after she doesn’t believe that Ms. Moskowitz lives in Harlem (0:53:40). One of the most shocking attacks on the Teachers Union occurs when Ms. Moskowitz mentions the “thuggish,” and “Godfather-like tactics” (0:49:04) that the Teachers Union has used to threaten her. Thus, the film depicts those who are opposed to education reform as nothing more than selfish, aggressive and irrational liars.
In the midst all of the educational and political controversy, viewers are introduced to Eric, and his supportive parents; Gregory, who has a mother that works fulltime and a father in prison; Christian, who lives with his father who recently recovered from a stroke, and are separated from the rest of their family in Africa; and Ameenah, who has a single and deaf mother. Each family anxiously waits for their opportunity to be chosen via lottery, and admitted into Harlem Success. Despite their desperation, only Ameenah ends up attending a charter school. The one-sided argument for the charter school movement is also depicted at a Public Space Hearing, where parents protest the implementation Harlem Success at PS 194. Their comments about how charter schools “divide our neighborhoods,” and “disrespect our [public] schools” (0:30:30) are ephemeral and marginalized. One mother even yells that Harlem Success will only get space over her “dead body” as her child holds her hand and appears to be clueless about what’s going on: (Sackler, 0:32:50).
In turn, Harlem Success advocates remind parents to think about their children, and the parents who protest Harlem Success are portrayed as angry, self-centered individuals who don’t understand the needs of their children. In an interview with Madeleine Sackler, she says the main reason she made the movie is because: “There are so many parents that are eager for something better” (Adams, 2010), but also shows how some parents are harshly opposed to the charter school movement. Additionally, parents who want better for their children is an innate constituent of responsible parenting, and reflects nothing new.
I believe that the film effectively demonstrates the need for charter schools, but it creates too much conflict by pointing fingers at specific individuals, committees and organizations that impede on the growth of charter schools. If charter schools are realistically going to make a greater impact on America’s education system, they must work together with the Teachers Union and local governments, instead of vilifying these influential denominators. When asked about the most disheartening aspect of the charter school movement, Madeleine Sackler responds: “That the obstacles are so entrenched and systemic, which means that it will require a tremendous amount of political will to overcome it” (Adams, 2010), but her film seems to further entrench those obstacles, and does not speak this broadly about them. Moreover, the film could prompt more political controversy than will. There is a spirit alive in the education reform movement that in an odd way resembles that spirit of other populous movements including the union organizing movement. Common good and finding common ground underpin our democracy in the United States.
While the deeper message beyond the film is that students and parents get left behind because of politics, I believe it spends too much time creating and focusing on enemies. By provoking emotion and anger, the film causes people to take action. But reactions to the film may not be the ones that Madeleine Sackler intended people to take. Jeannette Catsoulis’ article “Education by Chance” in The New York Times calls the film a “one-sided charter-school commercial,” (Catsoulis, 2010) and I completely agree. The Lottery should have hashed out the need for education reform in a more balanced way by interviewing dropouts, then Success Academy graduates; by taking a broader view of a student’s life, and not just showing how badly they want to win the lottery; and by comparing the environment of a Success Academy classroom to a failing classroom. This kind of data is available; and I’m not sure why common ground can’t be examined as part of the urgent quest to improve America’s education system. A more balanced and intellectually honest approach would further strengthen this film’s overall message and impact.
“The Lottery (2010).” N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.
Adams, Thelma. “Charter School Controversy: A Q&A With “The Lottery” Director Madeleine Sackler.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 15 June 2010. Web. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/thelma-adams/charter-school-controvers_b_610420.html>.
Catsoulis, Jeannette. “Education by Chance.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 June 2010. Web. 23 Feb. 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/11/movies/11lottery.html?_r=0>.
Sackler, Madeleine. The Lottery. Video Documentary, 2010. <http://thelotteryfilm.com/>.
Singer, Matt. “Review: “The Lottery,” Where Winning Really Is Everything.” IFC.com. Independent Film Channel, 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, 30 Apr. 2010. Web. <http://www.ifc.com/fix/2010/04/the-lottery>.