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Great Curve Films

What money can't buy

Back to School | Shocking facts underscoring the need for school reform are on display in two education documentaries

Issue: "Rocks in their heads?," Sept. 11, 2010

Eric Roachford drives a bus for New York City as members of his family have done for three generations. He wants his sons to have the choice between a career and just a job. Emil Yoanson is an immigrant from West Africa who holds faith in the American Dream and believes that education is the key to achieving it. Gregory Goodwine is a three-time felon who wants Gregory Jr. to have something he never had-friends and relatives who believe he can go to college. Nadiyah Horne quit school to help support her grandmother and also wants her daughter to be the first in her family to attend college.

The Lottery, directed by Madeleine Sackler, follows these parents and the difficulties facing the charter schools they want to enter. It opens with a haunting sequence of children's feet on a playground-running, jumping rope, and pausing uncertainly as they turn from side to side-hinting at the dark side of their childhood innocence. Powerful interests and chance have predetermined these children's lives.

With demand for charter schools outstripping available space, the schools hold lotteries to decide which students may enter. Who signs up to have their child's future determined by a roll of dice, and why? The Lottery (2010, not rated) moves with a delicate touch through these lives, but it faces squarely the controversy surrounding charter schools.

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Supporters of Harlem Success Academy-the school parents are hoping to enter in The Lottery-want to take over the building of a failing district school. ACORN organizers hold a demonstration against it. At a community hearing, one woman shouts to the audience, "Mr. White, you can go back and tell your bosses that this is not Desert Storm." Another woman screams with rage, "Harlem Success Academy, you are not welcome here. We will not welcome you here. We will fight you. I will fight until my dying day."

Racial tension festers at another meeting when Eva Moskowitz, the white founder of Harlem Success Academy, says she was raised in Harlem and still lives there. A council member asks her to give a street address. Moskowitz asks, aggrieved, if the council member thinks she is lying. Yes, the council member does. The film shows the tension well but leaves the causes for it insufficiently explored. Do parents oppose charter schools because of gentrification, autocratic leadership, arrogance, low expectations, or other reasons?

Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J., tells the interviewer he doesn't go to charter school lotteries anymore because "they break my heart." And yes, the film is heartbreaking, too. In a country where 365,000 children are on charter school wait lists, there are few happy endings. Parents who lose out try to explain the unhappy outcomes to confused kids, while the mom who gets lucky jumps up and down and thanks Jesus.

The Cartel

The state of New Jersey spends the most money per pupil and has dismal test scores to show for it. The Cartel, an education documentary by journalist Bob Bowdon, explores why. The Cartel is overly ambitious, jumping from administrative costs to school corruption to vouchers to a church tutoring service to charter schools. It tries to make a sweeping case for school reform but ends up seeming glib. The film (2009, The Moving Picture Institute, not rated) is at its most interesting when it covers a neglected topic: Why does education cost so much? Bowdon notes that one district school spends $313,000 per classroom and only $55,000 goes to the teacher's salary. So where does the rest of it go? For starters, $33 million goes to a football field at a school where one in seven seniors cannot read. Whistleblower teachers notice that a school is doling money to employees who don't exist, and other states can educate for less. In Maryland, for example, one district serves 35,000 students and in New Jersey, one district serves just 2,300. That means New Jersey needs more administrators, which means more $741,000 severance packages and $120,000 yearly pensions. The Cartel tells a few shocking facts but lacks the focus and storytelling needed to make those facts vivid.

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