Last night, as a part of InformEdaction’s bi-monthly discussion series, I went to go see The Lottery at the Laemmle Music Hall. The movie is for the most-part what I expected it to be – a heart-wrenching account of an unfair system that keeps some families down alongside a glimmer of hope for a few. The premise of the movie is simple. Each year, thousands of families “apply” to get their student into one of the various charter schools in Harlem. At the time of filming, there were just over 20 charter schools there. The film tracked four families who applied for their children to attend Harlem Success Academy, the most popular lottery in New York.
The night that we attended just happened to include a Q&A by Madeleine Sackler, the director of the film. Ms. Sackler’s film offers a scathing review of union actions and local politics that seem to stand in the way of children’s success. Alongside the stories of the children trying to get into Harlem Success is the battle between the charter organization and advocates for PS129, a failing school that Harlem Success 2 wanted to expand into last year. The movie claims that the major “shadow” actors behind the resistance movement are members of the teachers’ unions. At the hearing, there are even shots of opposition members wearing hats with the teachers’ union’s initials on them. In the Q&A, Sackler claimed that in making the movie, she had no agenda. She wasn’t trying to paint a certain picture of the unions or even of charter schools. In fact, she said she repeatedly tried to get union participation in the project – especially of AFT President, Randi Weingarten – and was told they were too busy for an entire year.
Overall, I think the film does a good job showing what charter schools can be, highlighting some of the amazing statistics that Harlem Success has been able to achieve. The school is proud of its high test scores, but seems to be even more glowing about its culture. Shots of the school show “Class of 2025” posters and university banners of all sorts. Interviews with teachers and principals there illustrate the drive they have to make sure their children succeed. If the film has a hero, it’s HSA’s CEO, Eva Moskowitz. She explains the high expectations the school has and is shown not only to be relentless, but passionate as well. At one point, Moskowitz is shown crying during her defense of HSA II’s plan to move into PS 129, because she believes that children in Harlem are not given the chances they deserve.
As much as I like the overall message of the film and the positive impact it might have on the general public, I have to say that even as someone who likes charters and is often critical of teachers’ unions getting in the way of education reform, I found the film particularly one-sided. Despite Ms. Sackler’s claims of having no prior intent – or maybe because of them – the film clearly portrays charters as fantastic institutions that are just being held back by those who don’t know or don’t care. It’s true, there are some amazing charter schools, but intentionally or not, the film makes it seem as though Harlem Success represents all charters. The school is popular because it stands out, not because it is similar to many others. It does what few other schools have been able to replicate. The movie also does not really share the legitimate concerns many have with the way that some charters are going about their business (or some may argue how they have to go about their business). It was apparent that one of the big worries of parents and local officials was that Harlem Success is not just for students in the areas that the zoned schools (read: normal public schools) where they were using space. The movie seems to gloss over the fact that not all of the children they followed were even from Harlem. The movie’s synopsis on IMDB says they are from “Harlem and the Bronx.”
The criticisms I have, however, are far outweighed by the positive effect a movie like this can have. If the general population were to see it, I think they would get the right message: there is a big problem with the way education has been going and it needs to change. Obviously, there are some who might not agree. Either way, it is clear that whether a child receives a quality education shouldn’t be a matter of chance.