Charter schools have become flavor of the month among advocates of educational reform, and while it doesn’t provide a comprehensive overview of the issue, Madeleine Sackler’s documentary “The Lottery” explains much of their appeal and should spark vigorous debate. Focusing on the heart-rending stories of four tough-luck families who enter the admissions lottery for Manhattan’s Harlem Success Academy — perhaps the nation’s most famous charter school — “The Lottery” pretty well demolishes the argument that charters are an elitist tool used to gentrify inner-city neighborhoods. Figuring out exactly why rigorously structured charters like HSA outperform ordinary zoned schools in Harlem and elsewhere (and they don’t always) is more complicated.
Some public school defenders will come out of “The Lottery” spitting mad, and they’ll have a point. It depicts HSA’s controversial founder Eva Moskowitz (now a New York councilwoman) as a hero, and paints local elected Democrats and teachers’ union officials in an exceedingly unflattering light. Furthermore, the film never addresses some obvious questions: Aren’t the parents who get their act together to apply to charter schools a self-selected, achievement-oriented group whose children are likely to do better wherever they go to school?
Still, however you feel about charter schools (and I largely agree with the film’s arguments), Sackler makes a useful contribution — first and foremost by capturing four gripping family stories that remind us that education is about real families and real children, each of them different, and not about a statistical average. The lesson I came away with is that pitting charter schools against “ordinary” public schools in some either-or equation is the work of ideologues on one hand and apparatchiks on the other — and both of those groups are putting their own vested interests ahead of our children.