In the era of education standards and accountability, the debate regarding the potential of charter schools to reform American public education, particularly for children of color, has heated up. Against this backdrop, several films have recently been released about charter schools. In anticipation of a classroom discussion I intend to conduct about one of them, I recently watched the “documentary” The Lottery. In this case, the quotation marks are intentional, because boy, was this one shoddy piece of documentary work.
My critiques of The Lottery are numerous, but I’ll start with data, or the lack thereof. Sackler, the film’s director, did not attempt to provide viewers with any data about charter school performance compared to traditional public schools. But then again, I don’t blame her. If she had, she would have had to admit that the most comprehensive study of charter schools to date found that fewer than 20% of the schools provided its students with better educations than public schools, almost half offered comparable educations, and more than a third offered their students inferior educations. Talk about your inconvenient truths.
But the absence of useful data was just one of many failures in the film, with unfair portrayals of the major players in education reform being the next problem. The Lottery shamelessly demonized teacher’s unions without bothering to interview even one union rep or pro-union advocate in defense of the organizations. This, despite the director’s decision to interview, almost exclusively, pro-charter advocates, some of whom likened unions to thugs and mafiosos. Now, I understand that there are plenty of villains to cast in the education reform debate. Even if, however, the unions are every bit as obstructionist as the movie suggests they are, and are dumping bodies in the river to boot, it is only fair to give them the opportunity to voice their perspective. If the director’s intent was to pin blame for public school failure on teachers, that’s fine, but she then shouldn’t have called her film a documentary. She should have called it propaganda, because that’s what it was.
Moreover, I have to defend the unions a little bit on this one. Anyone with an understanding of labor struggles in this country has to acknowledge that unions can and do play a vital role in protecting workers’ rights. Although it is true that union contracts have often enshrined due process procedures that result in the retention of many sub par teachers, it is not true that due process in itself is inherently problematic. Nor do I buy the argument that because these sorts of procedures are “never tolerated in the private sector,” they should not be tolerated in the public. To the contrary, due process is the name of the game in the public sector, and for good reason. Teaching at a public school is a public job, funded by public dollars, meaning that all qualified citizen are entitled to the job. And if, after having given the job to a citizen the government wants to take that job away, there are procedures that must be followed, for the government does not have the right to arbitrarily take away from citizens that which has been provided for only by citizens’ grace. I agree that some of these procedures have gotten out of hand, and that if we are to take the teaching profession seriously, it has to become easier to dismiss underperforming teachers while rewarding effective ones. But we cannot, and should not, get rid of due process. You want the freedom to engage in both justified and arbitrary firings? Go to the private sector.
While conveniently avoiding relevant data and scapegoating teachers and the unions that protect them, the movie lacks any substantive discussion about the real problems with American public education: segregation; funding disparities; poverty; inadequate health care and food insecurity among students. Instead, the film misleadingly suggests that reform is synonymous with charters. And it does so while exploiting black people to make the point. Prominently featured in the film is the contentious battle between a Harlem charter school that petitions to be housed in a soon-to-be-closed-down failing public school, and the black and brown parents who protest the charter school’s petition. Between participant interviews and clips from the heated public hearings on the issue, you walk away with the impression that parents of color are ignorantly opposing the very movement that is going to save their children. Missing from the film is any legitimate analysis of why these parents are so oppositional or what it feels like for a community to have their neighborhood school closed without education alternatives for their kids; most of these parents, after all, will not be able to obtain a spot for their sons and daughters in the new charter school. She never considers what it does to a community when a center in that community–a public school–is shut down. Needless to say, I didn’t appreciate the way in which Sackler’s portrayal legitimated the cultural deficit model that is regularly foisted on black people in this country.
And as if that weren’t enough, I was disgusted by the film’s presentation of the actual lottery. As has become all the rage, many oversubscribed charter schools hold public lotteries, at which anxious parents and their children gather in an auditorium to learn whether their child has won a coveted spot at the school. The parents of students’ whose names are called jump up triumphantly, running to the front of the auditorium, ushering their children towards clapping teachers and administrators who welcome the child to the school. The parents of students’ whose names are not called sit in the chairs despondently, ultimately heading home, clearly defeated by their bad luck. It is heartbreaking to see the looks on parents faces who had pinned their hopes on wining a spot, and the sad faces of their children who realize that their parents’ devastation has something to do with their limited opportunities. These schools say that they hold these lotteries to illustrate demand in poor communities for their services. I say they are exploiting the hopes and dreams of these families, and their beautiful black and brown babies, for a cheap publicity stunt, and that The Lottery was complicit in that exploitation. Not surprisingly, only 1 of the 4 families portrayed in the film won admission to the featured charter school.
In defense of the movie, some say that it at least “started a conversation,” but I don’t think the movie did anything positive to further an honest and realistic dialogue about public school reform in our country. Most people who saw the film are not like me or the other writers on this blog who are knowledgeable about public school education. Most viewers don’t realize that crucial data is missing. They don’t understand why parents in the film opposed the arrival of one small charter school in exchange for the closing of their neighborhood school. Most people sat down with a box of popcorn, were entertained by the drama which unfolded on the screen, and walked away with a skewed understanding of charters as the answer, unions as the devil, and black people as backwards for fighting the closing of their neighborhood school.
When discussing the film with one friend who happens to be an educator, she used the theory of “structural functionalism” to discuss what is happening with public education: poverty and marginalization of many exists to ensure wealth and access for the few. As a person with a B.A. in sociology, I agree that the theory is relevant here. And yet, social science terms can problematically make societal issues seem academic, objective and neutral, numbing us to the real injustice that is operating in the background. I’ve got a better way to sum up what was going on in that “documentary,” the charter school movement, and in American public education in general: this is some racist and classist $hit.