NY DAILY NEWS | April 28, 2010
An already heated national debate over charter schools gets a few degrees hotter tonight with the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival of "The Lottery," a powerful documentary about the Harlem Success Academy charters launched by former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz.
The film is designed to knock ambivalent people off the fence when it comes to the benefits of charter schools, and it does.
In the same way that "An Inconvenient Truth" mobilized a vast constituency to take action on climate change, "The Lottery" will create and energize charter supporters by the thousands. It conveys the desperation and urgency of urban public education better than the anti-charter forces can defend a status quo that is shockingly unfair and wholly unacceptable.
What people in well-off communities take for granted - the simple process of enrolling a child in kindergarten - takes on huge stakes in the film, which follows four Harlem families as they hope and pray (sometimes literally) for one of the scarce kindergarten slots in one of Moskowitz's schools, allocated by lottery.
Some charters - privately managed public schools with the power to alter their hours, work rules, budgets and curriculum - are scoring significantly better on standardized tests than the regular public schools around them.
Beyond scores, there's the look and feel of learning. You know it when you see it.
I have spent most of my life in one school or another. As a student, I've attended Catholic school in Harlem, public school in Westchester and earned degrees from Harvard, Yale and BrooklynLaw. As a college professor, I've spent at least one semester a year for the past decade teaching graduate and/or undergraduate students at Pace, Pratt, NYU, Long Island University and Hunter College.
I've visited Moskowitz's schools, sat in on classes and talked with her students. Anybody familiar with high-performing learning environments can tell within a few minutes that she's on to something that other educators should study and try to copy.
That's easier said than done. In Harlem and other communities, outstanding performance by charters has provoked envy, resentment and an organized backlash by teachers unions.
The divisions are understandable. It's hard not to get upset about the fact that public education in Harlem and other inner-city neighborhoods operates as a brutal social sorting mechanism.
A lucky few get steered to success, fulfillment and opportunity (only 10% of poor Americans ever make it to college). The unlucky ones are steered into a life marred by ignorance, inadequate skills, dead-end jobs, prison and worse.
"The Lottery" nails the cost of bad schooling perfectly. It's one thing to know in the abstract what it means to get a lousy education - but quite another to see a second-generation MTA bus driver wonder, wistfully, what he might have become with better courses and encouragement.
Opponents of charter schools tend to seize on the principled skeptics like Diane Ravitch, the education historian whose brilliant new book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," recently became a best seller.
Examining national charter school data, Ravitch concludes that all the fuss over standouts like Harlem Success may be misguided.
"There are some excellent charter schools, but there are just as many terrible charter schools," Ravitch told me. "When you compare charter schools to regular public schools, there is no difference in performance - no difference for black kids, Hispanic kids, poor kids or for urban areas. If you create a whole sector that pulls off public money to create privately managed schools and [it] doesn't get better results, all you're doing is enfeebling the public education system."
She's mostly right.
The fact that charters, on average, don't significantly outperform other public schools doesn't invalidate the individual achievement of particular schools like Harlem Success. They are pointing the way to a future where good schooling will be more than just a matter of chance.