A prior generation of political theorists called it “slack.” It’s the difference between citizens’ potential influence and the amount of influence they actually exert on their leaders. It’s the notion that government needs room to operate and that it functions best when not too many people put too much pressure on it or demand too much.
Based on that concept, Buffalo should have a great school system because – until now – the parents of kids condemned to failing schools have never exerted their influence.
That could change with the petition drive to pressure the district to convert dozens of lousy schools into district charters. Backers say they would be free of union contracts limiting everything from the use of the schools at night to tapping skilled recreation league coaches to run teams.
If they succeed in gathering 5,000 signatures – which should be a slam-dunk, given the involvement of some major churches – they could put a lot of pressure on School Board members, especially with board elections coming up in May.
With the unspoken threat of a lawsuit, a second petition calls for making room in good schools for all the kids who want to transfer out of lousy ones, as the law requires. In other words, disgruntled parents are trying to remove the slack that has let the district slide by.
It’s how institutions that work for the few, not the many, have always survived.
“The apathetic segment of America probably has helped to hold the system together and cushioned the shock of disagreement, adjustment,and change,” political scientist Bernard Berelson wrote in the 1954 book he co-authored, “Voting,” just before the civil rights movement showed what can happen when that slack is removed.
Not surprisingly, school officials are not keen on the charter effort, arguing that new Superintendent Pamela Brown should be given time to improve things.
Brown points to a planning process she’s about to launch “to engage the entire community” and says the district can turn around failing schools “without converting all or most of them to charter schools.”
Board President Mary Ruth Kapsiak takes a similar tack. While a mass conversion “could happen down the road, if we don’t improve,” she wants to give the new superintendent a chance.
That sounds reasonable.
But there’s just one problem with putting all of the eggs into that approach: If it doesn’t work, the next superintendent will come in asking for the same grace period, and so will the one after that, and the one after that.
How much time – and how many kids – will be lost playing that game?
At a parent meeting the other night, organizers played a video in which Gov. Andrew Cuomo noted that every educational group – from teachers and principals to custodians – has a lobbyist except one: students.
Parent apathy has created the slack that lets those other groups get their way while students fail.
The petitions could change that – provided they get more support than last year’s one-day school boycott.
If it turns out that Brown is right and that charter schools aren’t needed, great.
But the stakes are too high for parents to slack up now and wait for solutions from the same forces that contributed to the problem.