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Parents hold key to better Buffalo schools

It was purely coincidental that last weekend’s anniversary of the bloody march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., came in the same month that some 27,000 Buffalo families could demand that their kids be put in better schools.

But the contrast between the two eras couldn’t be more stark.

While thousands marched 50 years ago for black empowerment, far fewer African-Americans or parents of any race are likely to trouble themselves filling out the form to demand that their kids be moved out of failing city schools.

If education is the new civil right, then something has gone terribly wrong with our sense of activism.

Of the city’s 56 schools, only 13 are deemed good by the state. More than twice as many – 27 – are “priority” schools. That’s the politically correct way of saying they are among the very worst in the state. The remaining 16 are “focus” schools, meaning they are not much better.

Despite such futility, only 2,200 students sought transfers out of those schools two years ago – and that number was a stark increase, prompted by a campaign by District Parent Coordinating Council leaders who ran out of patience. This year, the number dropped to 1,090, a decline that the parent group blames in part on letters sent home by principals to dissuade families from seeking a better education for their kids.

There’s also the district’s protest that it doesn’t have enough seats in good schools to accommodate thousands of the transfer requests. That is true, especially with premier schools City Honors and the two Olmsteds off-limits. But that’s the point. The minimal changes so far to expand access to good schools are the direct result of pressure by the parent group. District officials won’t disrupt their failure factories and create enough good schools unless forced to do so; and the state will never force them unless there is a demand that can’t be ignored.

Parent group President Samuel Radford said that more parents don’t apply because “they’re telling you we don’t have any seats.” But such resignation wasn’t in the genes of people told they couldn’t drink from the fountain, couldn’t sit at the lunch counter and couldn’t walk from Selma to Montgomery.

The equivalent response today would be to have 10,000 or 15,000 families applying for transfers, and those without Internet at home marching down to the Ash Street registration office to complete the online form.

With crusading Education Commissioner John King gone and teacher unions exerting their clout this week to bend the Board of Regents more to their liking, little will improve for poor students unless parents make it happen.

A huge sign-up also would make it harder for the Buffalo School Board to ignore recommendations coming soon from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, which is examining admissions criteria at the city’s better schools.

How do you harness the latent power of families whose kids are eligible for transfers? Community organizations could mount sign-up drives until the March 31 deadline. Churches could drive busloads of parents to Ash Street. Thousands of families standing in line to take their kids out of failing schools would make national news in a city always fretting over its image. Something would have to change.

Could such activism really unfold here? I still have a dream.