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Lottery, The (DVD Review)

24 Aug, 2010 By: John Latchem

Street 8/31/10
Great Curve
Box Office $0.05 million
$14.99 DVD
Not rated.

One of the holy grails of American politics is how to deliver an efficient and effective education system. Director Madeleine Sackler’s The Lottery examines this issue by focusing on schools in New York City, where the Harlem Success Academy charter school has been achieving success while other public schools have fallen behind.

The title refers to the process of choosing which kids get to attend the charter schools, since HSA attracts 3,000 applicants for 475 slots. Since the process is random, HSA founder Eva Moskowitz says, and HSA kids are doing well, the problem in the school system is not with the kids, but with the grown-ups.

The documentary reaches the conclusion that HSA and other charter schools have an advantage because they don’t have to deal with bureaucratic red tape associated with teachers unions. In New York’s system, we are told, it takes two years and $250,000 to fire one bad teacher.

Sackler’s advocacy for the charter approach has generated significant controversy from the education establishment, whose representatives declined to be interviewed. Instead, she profiles union efforts to close down HSA while suing to keep failing schools open. Opponents of HSA throw out emotional buzzwords such as “respect” and “gentrification” but aren’t presented as giving a codified reason for their anger.

As we often see in politics, intention trumps result, so the local politicians, many of whom support the unions, insist on throwing more money at failing schools — which too often yields no improvement. This dogmatic approach echoes the film’s namesake, Shirley Jackson’s classic tale of conformity gone mad.

Moskowitz herself is no spring flower. We learn from some of the supplemental material that teachers unions delivered a devastating setback to her own political ambitions.

She admits she doesn’t have to make the lottery so public, claiming doing so shows there are thousands of parents interested in a better education for their children. On the other hand, she probably wouldn’t mind if such a spectacle motivated the parents of unselected children to get more active in the political process and vote out the politicians beholden to special interests devoted to the status quo. This is a brutal way to decide a child’s future.

In the battle between Moskowitz and the unions, Sackler chronicles a turf war with Harlem’s children caught in the middle. Sadly, many of these kids will grow up idolizing Barack Obama but will never have a chance to emulate his achievements. Ultimately, The Lottery is an affecting look at parents who are simply seeking to give their children a better chance at achieving the American dream.

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