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What About the 'Lottery' Losers?

In addition to some lively verbal jousting over teacher performance evaluations, the Atlantic K-12 education forum I attended also featured a film viewing and an interview with the stars.

Laurie Brown-Goodwine and her 6-year-old son Gregory Goodwine are featured in "The Lottery," a documentary that follows four Harlem families who are hoping their children secure spots at a high-achieving charter school through an annual name-drawing.

After a showing of several heart-wrenching clips from the film, which was released in June, the Goodwines and the movie's director, Madeleine Sackler, answered questions about school choice and the quest to get into the Harlem Success Academy.

Gregory was not chosen during the film's climactic (and devastating) lottery scene. But his mother explained that he was accepted off the wait list just after the school year started. She said she remains a staunch supporter of school choice because parents in more affluent communities should not be the only ones who have a say in what kind of education their children receive. Goodwine-Brown also noted that even the best schools are not good for all kids—and that had Harlem Success Academy's classes been too large for her son, or another problem arisen, she would have placed him somewhere else.

Audience members praised Goodwine-Brown's advocacy for her son and propounded the need for more great charters in low-income areas. When asked about his new school, Gregory said he likes science there, garnering chuckles and cheers from the audience (little did Gregory know that the previous panel addressed the need to improve STEM education in the U.S.).

The conversation was touching and optimistic, but it was also unilateral (a common criticism of the film itself as well). No one challenged the key assumption that despite the negative aspects of the lottery process, we cannot do any better right now—that the lottery is a necessary evil to ensure that at least some children get a great education.

But I couldn't help wondering, is that the lesson to be learned? Or is it that we can and should reallocate resources and efforts to improve all public schools, so that all kids, and not only those who win the lottery, have a fighting chance at academic success?

Might not school choice in the current context be further exacerbating the discrepancies between the best and worst schools?

And what happens to students who are never chosen, and end up at a failing local public school? How damaging is it to their feelings of self-worth? Do they potentially learn the lesson that their future is a product of chance rather than hard work? Might they believe that since they'll go to a "bad school" anyway, there's no point in trying?

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