When the parent group of the 34,000-student city schools protested at teachers union headquarters two years ago, they got a total of about 40 parents to show up.
Teachers had that many demonstrators at just one building – School 6 at South Division and Hickory streets – on Tuesday morning. They were there for the Buffalo Teachers Federation districtwide protest, carrying signs demanding “A New Contract Now!”
As another school year opens, the contrasting turnouts – the BTF can mobilize hundreds or thousands, the parent group dozens – reflect the imbalance of power when it comes to who controls Buffalo’s schools.
That has never been more relevant than now, as the district and the BTF await a fact-finder’s report on a new contract for teachers, their first in 10 years.
Of course, the BTF will downplay any tension with parents, pointing to some demands – smaller classes, more counselors, help for English language learners – that align with student interests.
But other BTF positions are clearly at odds with what’s best for kids.
The District Parent Coordinating Council, for instance, has long called for changes that would: let experts coach sports without acquiring a teaching certificate, allow after-school community programs without having to pay teachers to be there, and modify school starting times to increase bus-scheduling efficiency and save millions of dollars.
None has happened because each requires a change to the BTF contract, and as reflected in the contrasting turnouts, teachers hold all the cards.
But the turnouts also reflect another difference: motivation. Teachers march because they are fighting for their livelihoods. How many parents consider their child’s schooling as important as teachers consider their paychecks?
That means the question for the parent council is how to get parents as motivated to fight as the 3,500 teachers are. “There’s no easy answer to that,” said parent council President Samuel L. Radford III. “Most parents don’t understand the connection between policy and what happens on a day-to-day basis.”
The BTF understands, which is why President Philip Rumore can dismiss parental demands by insisting that “if it’s something academic that teachers are trained to do, then teachers have first crack at it.”
But this could be the year not just for hope, but for change. One member of the School Board’s new majority calls parents’ proposals the “key issues” in negotiations. The majority also wields new leverage with its vow of more charter schools if there is no change.
As for the prospect of parents growing into a countervailing force – the kind that could make state legislators more afraid of them than of the BTF – Radford is optimistic. One reason may be the parent council’s victories when siccing the state Education Department on the district. Those triumphs could inspire even more parents to get involved.
The other is Buffalo’s nascent renaissance, which is attracting the very type of active, involved parents who won’t tolerate substandard schools.
Buffalo teachers say they earn $20,000 less than their peers for doing a much harder job. They deserve parity.
Parents deserve something in this contract, too – but they’ll have to fight for it.
It may not take 3,500 of them, but it will take more than 40.