Becky Fenger Fenger PointingJUNE 2, 2010

Life's big lottery

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There's a movie opening nationwide on June 8, a documentary directed by Madeleine Sackler called "The Lottery." It chronicles four families who are trying desperately to escape some of New York City's worst public schools by switching from traditional public schools to charter schools.

The star of the film is really the Harlem Success Academy, a public charter school started by Eva Moskowitz. Since this school is public and must take anyone who applies, demand far outpaces supply. When this happens, by law the school must hold a lottery. Over 5,000 parents are hoping and praying their child will have his number drawn for an opportunity for a better education and life.

Some interesting comparisons are drawn. Beri Weiss of the Wall Street Journal tells us that on 118th Street in New York, Harlem Success Academy is on one side of the street and a traditional public (zone) school is on the other. Harlem Success Academy is number one in the entire state of New York in math, beating out schools in Scarsdale and the moneyed Upper East Side. Third graders in Harlem Success Academy pass the English language arts exam at a rate of 95 percent, while the zone school pass at barely 50 percent. And the two schools are serving kids from the same neighborhoods.

In New York, there are 40,000 parents currently on the wait list for these charter schools, 11,000 of which are in Harlem alone. Nationwide there are hundreds of thousands of parents who can't get their children into the school of their choice.

Director Sackler asks, "If there are these great schools, why aren't there more of them?" The answer is what Moskowitz calls the union/political/educational complex. By that she means the status quo.

The audience meets face to face with forces trying to kill the charter school movement, namely, teachers' unions and some elected officials. A clip from the film shows the determination of people opposed to this movement. "The unions are playing hardball. They don't want to be the face of the opposition to the press and expose the fact they are hell bent on putting their own adult interests ahead of the success of the children. So the United Federation of Teachers hires outside groups to do the dirty work (not that teachers' unions aren't eminently capable of their own dirty deeds). One of their favorite hires is ACORN, that community group of outstanding citizens, who will bus their troops to protest charter schools in general or a particular school.

At one rally, there was no one from the school district in attendance. Vagabond ACORN hired guns are screaming at the charter supporters, "You're not welcome here!"

Charter wars are happening all across the country as Obama puts billions of dollars in aid to schools on the line. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is encouraging states to revamp their education laws to compete for $3.4 billion in grants under the federal" Race to the Top" program. States can improve their chances of winning the money by increasing the number of charter schools they allow. In an election year, it behooves President Barack Obama to throw small amounts of money around to a large amount of states, worthy or not. Applications were due yesterday.

Jason Riley, Wall Street Journal editorial board member, says we need to have a vast expansion of public or private charter schools on the national level. "This is an education marketplace development where schools have to serve the needs of kids or risk losing customers. When schools compete for children, there is an incentive for all to do better," Riley believes.

"I think there are charter schools in 40 states and D.C. serving around 5,000 kids. That's still a very small percentage," he reports. He wants critical mass of these charter schools applying pressure on the traditional public school system to improve. I agree.

The nation was horrified to hear about a mixed martial arts cage fighter who allegedly "ripped out the still-beating heart of his training partner, cut out his tongue and ripped off most of the victim's face" in a brutal assault. The suspected killer claimed he was under the influence of hallucinogenic mushroom-laced tea. I wonder what the unions' excuse for wanting to rip the heart out of school reform and silence its champions is.