Thursday, April 29, 2010

'The Lottery' documentary shows education is a sure bet

Errol Louis of the New York Daily News talks about a new feature length documentary called The Lottery directed by Madeleine Sackler, which Louis describes:
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.
Let's face it, American public is not perfect (far from it) and for many students is it not too bad either (which is not to say that it cannot be better all around). But if you are poor, minority or worse both, your chances of getting a good education are fairly slim. The Lottery talks about the hopes, dreams and yes, prayers, of four families looking to win a coveted spot in "the lottery" which gives out spaces in the Harlem Success Academy. Louis talks about the atmosphere of learning that can be found in the charter school founded by former New York City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz. This lottery is not about money (at least not directly) but about chances, the chance to get a better education than the local public schools, even if Joel Klein and Michael Bloomberg like to crow about New York City's improving schools. The lottery is how an oversubscribed charter school doles out open spots in their incoming classes.

I am a huge fan of charter schools, but not because they are necessarily better than public schools. As Louis notes:
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.
It is true that most charter schools are not like Harlem Success Academy, and fail to outperform the general school population. But my support doesn't come from teh belief that the charters will outperform traditional public schools. My support is founded upon that basic tenent of our society--choice.

Right now, unless you can afford private school tuition or have a Catholic school system nearby, the government has a monopoly over public education. Americans have never tolerated monopolies for very long--we all intuitively know that a monopoly sooner or later fails to serve most people very well.

If I told a room of 100 people that because of where they live, they can only shop in designated grocery stores, I might or might not get a revolt. If the stores were of similar price and quality--then we might see little backlash. But if the quality of the stores was vastly different, where people living in the richer part of the room get better stores with more selections and better quality and the poorer people get less quality and selection--I would soon have a revolt on my hands for being morally and ethically suspect.

Yet when it comes to education that is the exact scenario that we have--a monopoly where the quality of the public education is directly related to the socio-economic status of the neighborhood. In general, you only get a better quality education if you live in a more affluent area.

Charter schools offer choices and those choices matter. Even if I don't avail myself of a charter school, the fact that such schools are available is highly important because it diminishes the power of the government over our lives and our children's lives.

The fact that a charter school doesn't outperform other traditional public schools on tests doesn't bother me. The fact that the charters exist at all is what matters because it is only through charters will poor people, minorities, or other less fortunate demographics get an opportunity to break out of the grip on traditional public schools.

Can Moskowitz's model be replicated. She says yes, skeptics say no. I say I don't give a toss if Harlem Success Academy's success can be replicated or not. Well, actually I do, but the most important aspect of the charter school is that there is a choice--full stop.

If The Lottery can do for charter schools what An Inconvenient Truth has done for some aspects of our community--that is get people to think about the charter schools, then the movie is a stunning success. I can't wait to see it.

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