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The biggest crisis of all

Filmmaker captures the anguish of parents who desperately want charter schools

Issue: "Tilting at turbines," July 17, 2010

Madeleine Sackler, at 27, is admittedly a young filmmaker. But she's old enough to pack a wallop.

Sackler's new documentary, The Lottery, saw only limited release across the country during the month of June. But it will be available in many more venues during July-and if you can find it, see it.

Documentaries, by definition, are meant to be a little detached, clinical-and maybe even soulless. The Lottery is none of those. Some audiences are reported to be leaving the theaters in tears.

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The specific subject matter of The Lottery is the battle being waged in the Harlem area of New York City for an increased role for charter schools. The state of New York announced just a few weeks ago that it's raising the cap on such schools from 200 to 400. But teachers unions and other entrenched interests are fighting that increase tooth and toenail-and even if they lose and the 200 new schools are launched, the demand from eager parents far exceeds the slots that will be available.

Like Jesus, who fully understood how a child might be effectively used to tug at his listeners' heartstrings, Sackler doesn't hesitate-over the film's full 80-minute duration-to parade a handful of charming children past her carefully nuanced lens. Like Jesus (in Matthew 18:6), she's angry at people who hypocritically insist on standing between children and the truth.

Sackler picks four families who have their hearts set on getting into Harlem Success Academy and traces their intense pursuit of a statistically unlikely goal: The school has fewer than 500 positions open for more than 3,500 applicants; the odds are one in seven. More to the point, of course, are the odds for failure: six in seven, or even worse. Education in Harlem, apart from the slender hope extended by schools like Harlem Success Academy, is way beyond bleak.

What makes The Lottery so deft is the quiet manner in which it builds its case. Not until you're halfway through the film do you realize how much you're identifying with and rooting for the four families you're getting to know. Sackler didn't pick heroes for her main characters. She picked everyman and everywoman-a bus driver, a mom with a profound speech impediment, an elderly immigrant father, and even a crook serving time in a state prison. All they want is a chance for their kids to learn to read and learn some basic math. This may be just a documentary-but you're on their side. You simply can't help it. All of which sets you up for the nauseating crash when, with the families themselves, you discover what it means that some aren't going to make it.

I won't tell you here how many don't make it. I'll also leave it to you, after you've seen The Lottery, to do the simple math that suggests how much progress our society could make in winning this battle and still lose it. This crisis is bigger than the oil spill in the Gulf, bigger than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan put together, bigger than a multitrillion-dollar deficit, bigger than a bottom-to-top healthcare crisis, bigger than stubborn 10 percent unemployment. It's bigger than all those because if little kids don't learn their phonics and that 2+3=5, they'll never be able to tackle the really hard issues.

The sober truth is that we could bulldoze every failing school in Harlem, replace it with 10 successful charter schools, and still lose our way. For charter schools are still creations of the state, forbidden by law to talk seriously with their students about ultimate and eternal issues. For many Christian parents, eager to expose their children to the full-throated implications of the Scripture for all of learning, even charter schools won't be enough.

But serious citizens should still be big-time boosters of charter schools-and this summer we need to do our part to see that The Lottery wins an enormous following across the country. America has a lot to learn about giving parents a just choice in the education of their children. The Lottery eloquently trumpets the cause of freedom in our classrooms.
Email Joel Belz

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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