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A scholarship program this year more than doubled its assistance to low-income Buffalo elementary school pupils attending parochial and private schools, demonstrating what a state legislator described as a "yearning" for school choice.

Even so, the BISON Fund, formally known as the Buffalo Inner-City Scholarship Network, was able to assist fewer than one of every four families that sought help.

BISON Fund officials said Thursday they are providing tuition assistance to more than 1,300 children, compared with 615 last year and about 200 when the program was launched four years ago.

"This shows there's a real demand on the part of parents, and minority parents in particular, for choice and opportunity in the educational system," said State Assembly Minority Leader John J. Faso, R-Kinderhook, who visited Catholic Central School on Thursday with BISON Fund officials. "There's a yearning -- a vast yearning -- on the part of parents in our urban areas."

The expansion of the BISON Fund program was due largely to the assistance of the Children's Scholarship Fund, which provided a $250,000 matching grant and underwrote an extensive advertising campaign.

As a result, tuition assistance was awarded to approximately 1,330 children -- about half of whom switched from public schools to private and parochial schools, and about half of whom were already in nonpublic schools, said Christopher L. Jacobs, BISON Fund president.

About 800 families were added to the program, while another 530 are continuing their involvement from year-to-year. The scholarships cover from 25 to 75 percent of tuition, depending on family income. Most of the recipients send their children to Catholic schools.

A lottery system was used to select the new participants from among 5,600 applicants.

"It's certainly nice to be able to help 800 new families, but there were even more people we couldn't help," Jacobs said. The program hopes to provide an additional 200 to 300 slots next year.

Without the assistance of the BISON Fund, Jacobs said, many participants would not have the means to enroll their children in parochial and private schools, or to keep them in those nonpublic facilities, Jacobs said.

"This is an incredibly powerful experience for families that are selected," he said. "It tends to draw them deeper into the education of their children."

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