We’re not surprised that Oxford American magazine is hosting its first national symposium on education in the South in New Orleans this Saturday.

Based in Arkansas, the magazine focuses on the intellectual and cultural life of the South, so the journal has a natural interest in how education is faring throughout the region. And the Crescent City, which has become a laboratory of public education reform since Hurricane Katrina, is a fitting place to consider how emerging education policies might affect the region — and, indeed, the entire country.

The symposium, scheduled from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at Tulane University’s Freeman Auditorium, is free and open to the public. For a conference schedule and more information, click on the “News and Events” icon at http://www.oxfordamerican.org.

Entergy is the major corporate sponsor of the event, but the symposium is inspired by Oxford American’s latest issue, which is devoted to the challenges facing public education. Among the best articles in OA’s education issue is “The Lottery: Taking A Chance on Public Education in New Orleans,” a first-person account by writer Anne Gisleson about how her family navigated the labyrinth of the public education bureaucracy to enroll Gisleson’s two young sons in a couple of the Crescent City’s new charter schools.

Seeking an alternative to the Lutheran school her children attended, Gisleson decided to explore some of her city’s charter schools, entering a world where waiting lists are long, and qualified applicants for the limited slots are selected by lottery.

Gisleson openly wonders why in a major city in the United States of America, a child’s education should depend on such a random gamble.

Here’s Gisleson: “Lotteries exacerbate parental insecurity; you chide yourself for not being rich enough or lucky enough or smart enough to live in a place that actually values public education.”

Gisleson suggests that a community with more enlightened priorities would make quality public education available to all children — not just those lucky enough to win a lottery.

Of course, only parents smart enough and diligent enough to work the system can get a chance for their children in this high-stakes lottery, anyway. What happens to the children of parents who are much less engaged?

That question applies to many public school systems beyond New Orleans, including the one in Baton Rouge.

Gisleson’s article is a potent reminder of how much chance is involved in determining winners and losers in public education. That’s no way to build an America that will be competitive in the 21st century.