Sidewalk Film Festival presents “The Lottery” – a new documentary about 4 families from Harlem and the Bronx trying to get their children into a good charter school
Harlem Success is a Charter School network that is actually working. Parents are pleased, and children are learning to read. Thanks to its success, it has four schools, and plans are underway to increase this number tenfold. Two little problems: 1) there is so much demand that the families have to enter a lottery to get their children into the school, and 40,000 children will still end up on waiting lists; 2) the teacher’s union hired Acorn (remember that “controversial community organizing group”?) to protest on its behalf, since union regulations do not apply at Harlem Success. Read this valuable article, and then come to the Sidewalk Film Festival showing this Thursday, 7 pm at the McWane Science Center, FREE.
Storming the School Barricades
A new documentary by a 27-year-old filmmaker could change the national debate about public education.
By Bari Weiss, Assistant Editorial Features Editor
The Wall Street Journal
Monday, August 23, 2010
‘What’s funny,” says Madeleine Sackler, “is that I’m not really a political person.” Yet the petite 27-year-old is the force behind “The Lottery”—an explosive new documentary about the battle over the future of public education opening nationwide this Tuesday.
In the spring of 2008, Ms. Sackler, then a freelance film editor, caught a segment on the local news about New York’s biggest lottery. It wasn’t the Powerball. It was a chance for 475 lucky kids to get into one of the city’s best charter schools (publicly funded schools that aren’t subject to union rules).
“I was blown away by the number of parents that were there,” Ms. Sackler tells me over coffee on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, recalling the thousands of people packed into the Harlem Armory that day for the drawing. “I wanted to know why so many parents were entering their kids into the lottery and what it would mean for them.” And so Ms. Sackler did what any aspiring filmmaker would do: She grabbed her camera.
Her initial aim was simple. “Going into the film I was excited just to tell a story,” she says. “A vérité film, a really beautiful, independent story about four families that you wouldn’t know otherwise” in the months leading up to the lottery for the Harlem Success Academy.
But on the way to making the film she imagined, she “stumbled on this political mayhem—really like a turf war about the future of public education.” Or more accurately, she happened upon a raucous protest outside of a failing public school in which Harlem Success, already filled to capacity, had requested space.
“We drove by that protest,” Ms. Sackler recalls. “We were on our way to another interview and we jumped out of the van and started filming.” There she discovered that the majority of those protesting the proliferation of charter schools were not even from the neighborhood. They’d come from the Bronx and Queens.
“They all said ‘We’re not allowed to talk to you. We’re just here to support the parents.’” But there were only two parents there, says Ms. Sackler, and both were members of Acorn. And so, “after not a lot of digging,” she discovered that the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) had paid Acorn, the controversial community organizing group, “half a million dollars for the year.” (It cost less to make the film.)
Finding out that the teachers union had hired a rent-a-mob to protest on its behalf was “the turn for us in the process.” That story—of self-interested adults trying to deny poor parents choice for their children—provided an answer to Ms. Sackler’s fundamental question: “If there are these high-performing schools that are closing the achievement gap, why aren’t there more of them?”
The reason is what Eva Moskowitz, founder of the Harlem Success Academy network and a key character in the film, calls the “union-political-educational complex.” That’s a fancy term for the web of unions and politicians who defend the status quo in order to protect their jobs.
In the course of making “The Lottery,” Ms. Sackler got to know the nature of that coalition intimately. “On day one, of course, I was very interested in all sides. I was in no way affiliated.” From the beginning, she requested meetings with then UFT President Randi Weingarten, or anyone representing the union position. They refused. Harlem’s public schools weren’t much more accessible. “It was easier to film in a maximum security prison”—something Ms. Sackler did to interview a parent—”than it was to film in a traditional public school.”
Viewers still get a sense of the union’s position, but it comes from the mouths of some unsavory New York pols. Take, for example, a scene from the film featuring a City Council hearing on charter school expansion. “The UFT was exposed at this particular City Council hearing,” she says, “because they were caught giving out scripted cue cards with specific questions for City Council members to ask charter representatives in the city.” Unlike many of the politicians, who came and went from the chamber during the seven-hour hearing, Ms. Sackler remained. And she watched as the scripted questions were repeated and repeated and repeated.