Should a quality public education be left to chance? It’s one of several questions raised in this utilitarian documentary, which follows four families (two from Harlem, two from the Bronx) as they wait for the annual “lottery”—a process that randomly selects a fraction of applicants for charter schools and leaves the rest on the outside looking in. Though the lottery concept hasn’t been across-the-board successful on a national level, the achievements of the featured New York institutions (namely the satellites of Harlem Success Academy) are inarguably inspiring. Within these low-income, notoriously underperforming districts, at least 70 percent of the Academy’s elementary students are reading at or above grade level, practically doubling the results at nearby public schools. But with limited space and a state cap, not everyone can benefit.
Director Madeleine Sackler favors an agenda of advocacy over complexity, making The Lottery an effective, if unapologetically one-sided, piece of agitprop. The bogeymen of reform—teachers’ unions and the legislators who back them—aren’t just sidelined; they’re compared to mobsters and thugs. Though it employs a steady stream of talking-head testimonials ranging from school czar Joel Klein to Newark mayor Cory Booker, the film works best when Sackler simply lets the camera roll during two unbearably volatile public debates, giving viewers a taste of how painful, if essential, radical change can be.—Eric Hynes
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