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Damned If You Do, F**ked If You Don't -- The Mockery of the American Education System

By Dustin Rowles | Film | September 8, 2010 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | September 8, 2010 |

When it comes to public education, your politics are likely to get completely screwed around with. At least if you’re a commie liberal hippie pansy, like myself, it’s hard to know what to think. According to my party allegiances, I’m supposed to be in favor of unions, and I think I’m supposed to be against charter schools or the idea of “school choice,” where students can decided to go to a superior school, which in turn drives down the value of the lesser schools even more. While I can theoretically understand why someone would be opposed to charter schools, in practice, I’d choose to have them rather than not for many of the reasons outlined by the documentary, The Lottery.

In the devastating and heartbreaking Madeleine Sackler documentary, the issue is all the more confused because it’s set in Harlem, in what must be a Democratic stronghold, and yet the main villain in the film — and in real-life opposition to charter schools — is the teacher’s union, which basically controls the Democratic party. Of course, for those of you who are or know a teacher, you probably know how powerful the teacher’s union is. It has to be second to only the baseball players union in its strength, and with that much power comes corruption. If you’re a teacher, the union is great: You have unparalleled job security, a nice pension plan, and lots of vacation (unfortunately, the union isn’t quite strong enough to afford teachers a better salary). But with that job security, in many cases, you get teachers who don’t give a shit, who have no expectations to meet, no competition, and little incentive to do more than the bare minimum. Why should they? It’s not like they’ll get fired: In 2008, of the 55,000 unionized teachers, only 10 were fired, and at a cost of an average of $250,000 in legal fees per teacher termination. It’s cheaper to put them in the rubber room.

Of course, if I were a teacher, I’d want to be in the union myself. But for students saddled with unmotivated teachers, you get what’s happened in Harlem, where 19 of 23 schools have failing literacy rates, and where the average graduating student can read no better than the 8th grade level. The reasons are many, and I’m sure have a lot to do with environmental factors outside of the school system, like single-parent homes, unemployed or drug-addicted parents, and parents who simply don’t care anymore than the teachers do.

But, at least according to The Lottery, charter schools in Harlem have been very effective. And while some of that is likely due to the fact that the more concerned and caring parents — who are already more likely to raise a successful child — are more likely to go through the effort of putting their child into a charter school, a lot of that success has to be attributed to the schools themselves, which are held to a higher standard and threatened with closure if they don’t meet those expectations.

The Lottery focuses on several families — mostly single-parent homes — and their efforts to enroll a child into the charter schools, where the odds of the child making it to college are dramatically increased. Where the choice is between a zoned school with a 10 percent literacy rate, and a charter school where future college admittance is far more likely, the choice is easy for parents. Of course, that’s why there are thousands of applicants for only a limited number of spots, which are given out in a lottery. If your number is chosen: Congratulations! Your child has a shot in life. If your number isn’t chosen, especially if you’re a black male living in Harlem, you have better odds of ending up in prison than you do a college. In Harlem, and in a lot of urban districts around the nation, the American Dream is handed out in a lottery.

It sucks, but the alternative is that everyone ends up going to the schools with a ten percent literacy rate. Of course, the other alternative is to fix the public school system in those areas, but it’s unlikely to change unless the teacher’s union is fixed. But the teacher’s union is powerful and controls, in many cases, the political establishment. The very people who have control over school reform have a self-serving interest in the status quo.

Who suffers? The kids. The education system. Taxpayers. Our economy, The future of this country, which has fallen further and further behind in math and literacy rates among civilized nations. But mostly the kids. And watching, in this documentary, those parents helplessly vying for a tiny chance at giving their children a proper education is immensely heartbreaking. You’re happy for those who get into the charter schools, but it hardly makes up for witnessing the bitterness and pain for the vast majority who do not.

In our two-party system, it’s a politically untenable solution, it seems: Vote for a Democrat, and you get the teacher’s union and opposition to charter schools. Vote for a Republican, and you get more charter schools, which drain resources and brighter students away from the public schools, which then fall further and further behind. And you also get opposition to the teacher’s unions, and in a field where job security is the only real incentive anymore, a vote against the union likely means that you’re going to lose even more good, smart, devoted teachers to the private sector. It’s a completely screwed up system, and in a nation with so much innovation, you’d think we could fix it.

The Lottery doesn’t afford the opposition much of a voice; it’s more concerned with demonizing those opposed to charter schools in Harlem through the use of selective editing, which highlights the screechy, irrational critics while humanizing the those in favor. It’s charter school agitprop, to be sure, but it’s wildly effective. If I lived in Harlem, I’d do everything in my power to send my child to a charter school. But if he didn’t get into a charter school, I’m sure I’d fight against them, if only because they’re taking the better teachers, and public resources that could’ve been allocated to my son’s zoned school. I’m curious to see, however, whether the similarly themed but more publicized documentary, Waiting for Superman (out later this month) will take a more even-handed approach. It’s a fascinating and disturbing issue, and at the very least, it deserves to be discussed and debated. Somebody has to do something, and maybe The Lottery and Waiting for Superman can help to lead the charge.

The Lottery Trailer

Waiting for Superman Trailer