the lottery documentary summary

The Lottery | Film Review

Five NYC students enter a lottery for acceptance to a local charter school, their only hope of escaping a government school system otherwise fully in the self-serving grip of the teachers union…but not all will win their ticket out of the education-industrial complex. [ The Lottery credits: Dir: Madeleine Sackler/ 81 min/ Documentary/ Government schools, Incompetent government/ 2010]

Behold the full glory of the well-intentioned State, writ small in the form of the incompetent and yet grasping New York City public school system. By any measure, the system is utterly failing the kids it’s supposed to be helping. But there is hope. It seems some heroic activists, led by the legendary Eva Moskowitz, have managed to establish a few charter schools that are wildly outperforming the centrally-managed school system.

Charter schools aren’t privatized, of course, but they are a step in the right direction, away from monopolistic control, and they produce far better results. The Lottery is about the struggle these schools go through just to be allowed to exist, the abusive and threatening way they are treated by the teachers’ union — and how badly kids want to go them.

Much of the film is focused on several students living in modest circumstances in the neighborhood of Harlem. Their parents are not indifferent to education, as stereotypes would have it; they want the best for their kids. Great hopes are placed on the annual lottery for charter school admission. Yes, the lottery — they can’t just sign up to the charter schools because the teachers’ union fights tooth and nail to limit the number of charter schools built. Consequently, there aren’t enough charter school spots to satisfy demand; six students want to get in for every one spot available. Thanks to the teachers’ union and the Democratic Party that backs it, the fate of these aspiring underprivileged kids must be determined by cruel chance. How proud NYC Democrats must be to know that they hobble the lives of the less fortunate on a routine and daily basis.

The film is subtle in making this point; it’s mentioned here and there, but it’s softened by the fact that many of the reformers are also Democrats. And yet you can’t watch this film without feeling some exasperation if not anger that a party which perpetually and loudly claims it owns the moral high ground can be so morally corrupt, cynical and unfeeling.

This hits you at the end of the film, when the annual lottery is actually shown. You see the kids and families you met earlier in the film sitting in an auditorium, waiting to hear if they got in. These are nice people, patriotic people, good people who want the best for their kids. But you know in advance only a few will make it into the charter schools. The rest will be left to languish in schools that are dangerous and failing. As winning student names are called out, you feel for those not called. In the end, there is jubilation for a few, tears and words of consolation for the rest. You know it doesn’t need to be this way. There are people in charge who want it this way.

This is a polished documentary with mainstream credentials, so it would be a good choice to share with those who still believe in the idea of a centralized public school system. Have them watch this, and then ask them how they would defend their position to one of the kids who didn’t get in. People who think this situation is acceptable certainly have some explaining to do.

External Reviews

The Lottery shows the stranglehold that the teachers union has on politicians, particularly Democratic politicians. The arrogance and ignorance of some of these politicians is galling…”
–SF Gate

“Every parent in New York should see this movie and then ask why, when solutions exist, our woefully broken school system has yet to be fixed.”
–NY Daily News

“[Director] Sackler reframes education reform as a moral issue, and it’s impossible to look at the fallen faces of kids turned away from a school—of all things—and disagree.”
–Village Voice

Students apply to a charter school, their only hope of escaping a school system in the grip the teachers union…in The Lottery. ]]>