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Eye on the News

Ben Boychuk
Buffalo’s Parent Revolt
A group of parents in Western New York wants more than a mere “voice” in reforming the city’s failing schools.
8 July 2011

Public school administrators often complain about parents’ apathy. If only parents would be more engaged with their children’s education, the lament goes, schools would have a much easier job. School district officials in Buffalo sound a different complaint: if only the parents weren’t so outspoken. A noisy group of 4,000 parent-activists are demanding more than just another “voice” in the listless reform “conversation,” but rather what one local journalist called “a place at the table with some juice to go with it.”

The “juice” in this case is a parent-empowerment law, also known as the parent trigger, which would allow parents at failing schools to petition the school district for certain reforms. About 40 parents and activists from Buffalo’s District Parent Coordinating Council (DPCC) and Buffalo ReformED, an education reform group, piled into a chartered bus just before dawn on June 15 and rode to the capitol in Albany to lobby legislators for the Parent Trigger Bill sponsored by a bipartisan duo from Buffalo—Democratic assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Republican senator Mark Grisanti. The parents’ effort underscores the need for a major transformation of the Buffalo Public School District, which serves nearly 33,000 students in 59 schools. The state lists 13 of those schools on its “Persistently Lowest Achievement” list, with another 13 on the bubble. Truancy is rampant, with over half of students in the district absent more than 20 school days. In a district with a majority black population, only about a quarter of black males graduate high school. Buffalo’s overall high school graduation rate is a pathetic 47 percent. And of those who manage to earn diplomas, just 15 percent are ready for college. The district’s board of education voted earlier this year to turn over seven struggling campuses to outside groups and has asked for $54 million in federal “school turnaround” grants.

Parents would like to ensure that money isn’t squandered, and they think a new law would be one way to do it. New York’s parent-trigger bill, which is confined to Buffalo for the time being, uses California’s landmark trigger law as a template but makes some significant changes. California’s law says half of parents at a failing school may petition a district for certain specified reforms; Buffalo’s parent trigger would require at least 55 percent of parents to sign on. In California, the available remedies include converting a school into an independent charter; firing and replacing half of the teachers; giving principals greater autonomy to extend school hours and offer after-school tutoring; and shutting down a school entirely. In Buffalo, closing a school would not be an option, taking a major bargaining chip off the table.

Unlike California’s law, which may soon be diluted by new regulations and further legislative meddling, however, the Buffalo proposal clearly spells out parents’ rights and officials’ responsibilities. The school district would have just 30 days to verify a petition. If the district determines it cannot implement a certain reform, parents have an ironclad right to appeal the decision to the state’s Board of Regents and supreme court. Significantly, once 30 percent of parents at a specified school have signed a petition, the district and the school targeted for transformation must hand over a directory of parents’ names and contact information to aid the signature-gathering process—essentially an Excelsior List for school reformers. Finally, the bill guards against unscrupulous community organizers as well as official obstruction by prohibiting “harassment or misuse of public funds focused on misinforming or threatening parents to dissuade them from organizing to transform their school.”

Grisanti says the bill is “the first step in allowing parents to come to the table and have a say in this school system that’s failing their students.” He introduced the measure in the waning days of the session just ended, and he’s confident that it will pass the senate next year. The legislation has the support of the Western New York legislative delegation, members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, and the Buffalo Common Council. But without support from Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, a Queens Democrat who chairs the education committee and controls which school-related bills come to a vote, the legislation has a slim chance of clearing the lower house. Nolan has sent conflicting signals on whether she’ll back the bill.

Meantime, Buffalo’s education establishment is playing as though the whole scheme smacks of unseemly electioneering. “Allowing a petition by parents would ignore the research, the other stakeholders, and leave the decision open to politics,” a condescending teachers’ union spokesman explained to the Buffalo News. “Would we have an election-style campaign where we have advertising and mailings and money being spent on both sides, lobbying parents?” Lou Petrucci, chairman of the school board’s finance committee, demanded to know how the DPCC parents paid for the lobbying trip, hinting that they might have misused state or federal Title I funds.

But Hannya Boulos, executive director of Buffalo ReformED, noted the underlying irony of parent-trigger opponents’ objections. “The district asks parents to lobby the legislature for more money in the budget all the time,” she said. “So this isn’t unusual.” And unlike the New York State United Teachers, the Buffalo parents don’t have $4.9 million to spend this year on lobbyists. Boulos said her organization, which employs three paid staffers (including herself) and operates out of a basement, paid a few hundred dollars for the bus trip to Albany and for lunch. “Basically peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and some bottled water,” she told me.

The point of a parent trigger, Boulos says, isn’t necessarily to let parents usurp the roles of elected school board members or undermine principals and teachers, but rather, to give parents leverage. Teachers’ unions and district bureaucrats speak piously about respecting the “input” of various “stakeholders.” And though voters may technically have a say in electing their local school board, the reality is that fewer than 4 percent of eligible voters turn out for those low-profile, off-year plebiscites. Every stakeholder wields considerable power and influence, except for the parents.

Not until Buffalo parents and students staged a one-day boycott of the schools on May 16 did the district bureaucrats begin to pay more than just lip service to their concerns. Sam Radford, vice president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, justified the boycott in an interview with WIVD News. “We have to have the courage and take the risk to interrupt the way the system is operating,” he explained. “The system is broken.” Of course, rolling boycotts aren’t practical, and skipping school to make a point about a system plagued by truancy sends a mixed message, to say the least. But the parents have no plans to quit, and it’s a testament to their perseverance that they have come this far in such a short time. The parent trigger would place a lawful check on other education establishment interests by empowering the special interest that matters most.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of City Journal.

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