The four elementary students shadowed in The Lottery are among thousands of hopefuls who enter the Harlem school lottery for a chance to attend one of the district's charter schools. This compelling documentary, from first-time filmmaker Madeleine Sackler, examines this luck-of-the-draw admission process and the disparity between these charter schools and students' home schools. As the film suggests, there is something very wrong about a lottery determining a child's future.
Students Ameenah, Christian, Greg Jr. and Eric Jr. all want a spot at Harlem's Success Academy, where students' test scores are consistently the highest in the state of New York. But the families of these children are not the only ones interested in the area's charter schools. Demand for enrollment is so high that the schools hold a lottery every year to select incoming students. Those not selected must return to their zoned public schools, where they are more likely to fall below grade level and not continue on to higher education.
Filled with interviews from lawmakers, teachers, administrators, parents, students and union members, The Lottery is a compelling look at a serious problem facing the nation. That Sackler chose to film in Harlem, home to some of the country's most impoverished students, is interesting, as schools in this area are heavily unionized. The United Federation of Teachers, with over 200,000 members, is well-represented in this corner of the world. The Lottery presents some startling facts about how difficult it is to fire a union teacher: Apparently only 10 out of 55,000 tenured teachers were fired in the New York City area in 2008, and the cost to fire just one incompetent teacher was about $250,000. Unlike traditional schools, charter schools must meet strict performance standards or risk losing their charters, and teachers are more easily fired.
Unions, as well as the traditional zoned schools, are hung out to dry in The Lottery, but the film never feels one-sided. Union and civic leaders consistently put foot to mouth in the film and fail to acknowledge the root of the problem, instead choosing to label charter-school advocates elitist and idealistic. A community meeting even reaches boiling point when locals spar over a proposed charter school relocation to a dilapidated zoned school. The chips fall on both sides of the aisle, with many residents fiercely defending their neighborhood schools.
The Lottery is admirable in its ability to explore an issue like charter schools and make it digestible and entertaining for viewers. The 80-minute documentary breezes by, and intimate scenes with each family reveal that these children are not special cases but average elementary school kids. The film culminates in the actual lottery proceedings, and I found myself slackjawed at how ostentatious the whole affair was. I cannot fault the charter schools for rallying the few children they can accept, but watching the solemn rejects sitting feet away from winners, hands full of balloons and certificates, was troubling.
The charter school vs. zoned school debate at the heart of The Lottery is only one issue facing our nation's educators. Many educators question whether charter schools actually hurt school districts by taking away money and talented students from zoned schools, leaving them to fail. There are also the debates over public and private schools, and whether or not teachers' unions are effective. I would have liked The Lottery to explore Harlem's zoned schools further, as I assume that good things do happen there thanks to dedicated educators. Despite this slight criticism, The Lottery is an important film worth viewing, as the disparity in our nation's schools is an issue that affects nearly everyone.
Great Curve Films presents The Lottery on DVD with a very pleasing 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. The film uses a variety of sources but looks mostly excellent. The transfer is clear, detailed and at all times lifelike. Interview close-ups are sharp, and skin tones are spot-on. Outdoor shots also exhibit a great amount of detail, which is only enhanced by the filmmakers' assured use of natural lighting. A very solid transfer for this documentary.
Audio is presented in 2.0 stereo, and no subtitles are available. The soundtrack certainly is not dynamic, but it is appropriate for the material. Dialogue is clear and balanced along with ambient noise and music, but the track seems to be recorded at a slightly lower volume than most DVDs.
Extras include a Tribeca Film Festival Panel with Director Madeleine Sackler (16:23) in which she discusses the film and its subject matter, as well as four deleted scenes (7:31), a theatrical trailer and text articles about the film.
A startling number of this country's children are not receiving a quality education, and many now look to charter schools as an attractive alternative to traditional zoned schools. The Lottery follows four Harlem children hoping to gain admittance to a local charter school, and raises the troubling question of whether it is good practice to allow only some children access to a solid education. This documentary is a must-watch, especially for parents. Highly Recommended.