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'What's funny," says Madeleine Sackler, "is that I'm not really a political person." Yet the petite 27-year-old is the force behind "The Lottery" an explosive new documentary about the battle over the future of public education opening nationwide this Tuesday. In the spring of 2008, Ms. Sackler, then a freelance film editor, caught a segment on the local news about New York's biggest lottery. It wasn't the Powerball. It was a chance for 475 lucky kids to get into one of the city's best charter schools (publicly funded schools that aren't subject to union rules). "I was blown away by the number of parents that were there," Ms. Sackler tells me over coffee on Manhattan's Upper West Side, recalling the thousands of people packed into the Harlem Armory that day for the drawing. "I wanted to know why so many parents were entering their kids into the lottery and what it would mean for them." And so Ms. Sackler did what any aspiring filmmaker would do: She grabbed her camera. Her initial aim was simple. "Going into the film I was excited just to tell a story,"; she says. "A vérité film, a really beautiful, independent story about four families that you wouldn't know otherwise" in the months leading up to the lottery for the Harlem Success Academy. But on the way to making the film she imagined, she "stumbled on this political mayhem really like a turf war about the future of public education." Or more accurately, she happened upon a raucous protest outside of a failing public school in which Harlem Success, already filled to capacity, had requested space. "We drove by that protest," Ms. Sackler recalls. "We were on our way to another interview and we jumped out of the van and started filming." There she discovered that the majority of those protesting the proliferation of charter schools were not even from the neighborhood. They'd come from the Bronx and Queens. "They all said 'We're not allowed to talk to you. We're just here to support the parents." But there were only two parents there, says Ms. Sackler, and both were members of Acorn. And so, "after not a lot of digging," she discovered that the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) had paid Acorn, the controversial community organizing group, "half a million dollars for the year." (It cost less to make the film.) Finding out that the teachers union had hired a rent-a-mob to protest on its behalf was "the turn for us in the process." That story of self-interested adults trying to deny poor parents choice for their children provided an answer to Ms. Sackler's fundamental question: "If there are these high-performing schools that are closing the achievement gap, why aren't there more of them?" The reason is what Eva Moskowitz, founder of the Harlem Success Academy network and a key character in the film, calls the "union-political-educational complex." That's a fancy term for the web of unions and politicians who defend the status quo in order to protect their jobs. In the course of making "The Lottery," Ms. Sackler got to know the nature of that coalition intimately. "On day one, of course, I was very interested in all sides. I was in no way affiliated." From the beginning, she requested meetings with then UFT President Randi Weingarten, or anyone representing the union position. They refused. Harlem's public schools weren't much more accessible. "It was easier to film in a maximum security prison," something Ms. Sackler did to interview a parent "than it was to film in a traditional public school." Viewers still get a sense of the union's position, but it comes from the mouths of some unsavory New York pols. Take, for example, a scene from the film featuring a City Council hearing... --The Wall Street Journal
"The Lottery" is one of the more persuasive documentaries of recent months. It deals with the issue of charter schools in New York City's Harlem, about their great success and about the families that wait in hope of the annual lottery, by which children gain admittance. Three thousand apply for fewer than 500 openings. They're called "charter" schools because they operate according to a five-year charter with the city or state, and if they don't get results at the end of that period, they're closed. Though funded by government money, they operate outside the teachers unions. The school year and the class days are longer, and teachers who are underperforming are fired. According to the documentary, it's almost impossible to get rid of a bad teacher under the union system, and even when it happens, the process costs the city approximately $250,000. From a distance, this might seem like a dry subject for a documentary, but as filmmaker Madeleine Sackler makes clear, this is a matter of life and death to the parents. Aside from the charter schools, the public education system in Harlem is a disaster. Out of the 23 non-charter schools, 19 have fewer than half the students reading at grade level. Thus the lottery could very well determine the entire course of a child's life - even its length. The schools under the regular system are factories of failure and incubators of crime. So you'd think that the successful model established by Eva Moskowitz, a mother of three who founded the first charter schools in Harlem, should be the educational road map for the city of New York. But no. The documentary shows the stranglehold that the teachers union has on politicians, particularly Democratic politicians. The arrogance and ignorance of some of these politicians is galling, particularly in the scene in which Moskovitz testified before an education panel. Fortunately, some Democratic politicians, such as Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, are bucking the trend. By the time the lottery takes place, viewers understand all that's riding on it. You look at all these beautiful kids, with all the potential in the world, and every expectation for a great life, and you know that at most one-sixth of them will come out of the room with a fighting chance. That shouldn't be. --The San Francisco Chronicle
Top Customer Reviews
I applaude the makers of this film for taking on such a controversial topic. It is good to have an educated discussion about these issues. I recommend it to every parent that has kids in school age. Well done!
The film dispels the myth that underprivileged children will, almost by default, wind up doing poorly--we see children from troubled backgrounds with poverty, incarcerated parents and more making a success of themselves in the classroom. They can still have bright futures! These charter school children are reading at their expected grade level as opposed to children in the regular New York public school system in which children just aren't learning much--sometimes they read at a fourth grade level when they're in eighth grade!
It's quite something just to watch the footage of four children in particular as we get to know them and their immediate relatives; the parents want so badly for their children to get a superb education and avoid the regular public school system.Read more ›
The movie is well done and flows well. It follows these families. The parents want good educations, but they recognize their children won't get it at the public schools. I came to care about the children and was sad that they have been so handicapped in life and that the public schools are doing a poor job of educating students. The movie covers many of the basic problems with government schools. Here are some of the places the public schools are failing:
1) The average black 12th grader performs as well as the average white 8th grader.
2) 58% of black 4th graders are functionality illiterate.
3) Out of 23 public schools in Harlem 19 of them have fewer than 50% reading at grade level.
In contrast Harlem Success Academy students are going off to college. In the year The Lottery was filmed, there was 3000 applicants trying for 400 slots.
One of the most painful parts was watching people fighting Harlem Success Academy's efforts to expand. Here is a charter school which is succeeding. By objective measurements the students are way beyond the regular public schools, yet because the teacher unions feel threatened there is great opposition to Harlem Success Academy starting a third charter school. This is a classic example of how politics is destroying public education in America.
If you want a better understanding how and why public schools are so broken then watch this movie. You'll come to understand why so many public school teachers send their children to private schools.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Love It!!!! For anyone who is really passionate about education you should get all of Geoffrey Canada's material. His passion will become your passion.Published 6 months ago by Alicia Hunter
I'm an enthusiastic charter school movement supporter, and well aware of Success Academy's fantastic record in N.Y.C. Read morePublished 14 months ago by Loyd Eskildson
A well made documentary that expounds on a controversial issue from a personal, if one-sided, angle. Still, it's made with finesse.Published 15 months ago by Kris Y
Good concept and it really gives people a chance to do right by their children and let them become part of society and get a good education. Read morePublished 16 months ago by Laura Gjengdahl
Powerful but pro-charter with no alternating views. I am not a union supporter but urge viewers to look at both sides of the coin.Published 16 months ago by Linda Landry-Pires
A true story of parents who try to obtain excellent education for their kids. Heartbreaking. May this story inspire you to be thankful for the excellent education you received and... Read morePublished 17 months ago by atg97006