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Cutting Class

Thursday, June 1, 1995

Since the publication of "A Nation at Risk" in 1983, Americans have become increasingly alarmed about the dismal results and soaring costs of their public schools. No group of citizens has a closer view of these problems or a more immediate stake in addressing them than the parents of the country's 48 million schoolchildren. Here and there, parents have won minor battles to influence curricula or oust mediocre school-board members. But as individuals, parents are no match for the forces that favor the status quo.

Parents' most promising forum to agitate for reform and hold their local educators accountable for failure already exists: the venerated National Congress of Parents and Teachers, commonly known as the PTA. Unfortunately, parents cannot count on either their local PTA or its national leadership to advance parental interests—or even air diverse viewpoints. As it operates today, the PTA is useless to parents who want to play a meaningful role in educational reform.

The mission of the PTA has always been to "work on behalf of the best interests of all children on issues that affect their health, education, and welfare" and "to encourage parent involvement." With almost seven million members, the PTA offers great potential for promoting parental involvement in the educational welfare of children. But in the 1990s, that mission requires of the PTA something it has been unwilling to do: demand accountability for performance and spending at every level of the educational system.

Local Control

Decades ago, parents had significant influence over their neighborhood schools. Over the years, however, school districts consolidated, teachers and administrators came to see themselves as credentialed professionals, and state laws standardized educational practices and curricula. Today, many parents are less likely to get involved in their children's educational environment. Nevertheless, the impetus for reform will have to come from parents active at the grass roots.

The PTA ought to be helping such parents overcome the considerable barriers to holding local educators accountable. For instance, it should be of great concern to parents that student grades tend to be as high in low-achieving as in high-achieving schools, but the PTA deliberately avoids such educational issues.

In the annual battles over allocating financial resources, the PTA should play a major role in deciphering complicated budgets for the benefit of interested parents. Instead, PTAs rally with teachers unions for tax increases, seldom questioning the effect on parents or the educational outcomes for students.

Parents also deserve greater consideration of their interests in the contract negotiations that determine pay and working conditions for teachers. For instance, teachers in Montgomery County, Maryland, refused to write recommendations for their college-bound students because such "extra" duties weren't in their contract. In some areas, a parent who wishes to lodge a complaint about a teacher must navigate a bureaucratic process established by contract. Parents may have to submit a written account of the grievance in order to secure a meeting with the teacher, who has the right to bring along a union representative. Some parents find such time-consuming and intimidating conditions a clear subordination of parental interests to teacher rights.

It is indisputable that teachers are already well represented in negotiations. Therefore, an effective local PTA that works on behalf of parental interests should insist on more than the current minimal accord paid to parental concerns. Working through the PTA, parents could ensure that their schools:

  • Demand pro-parent scrutiny of teacher contracts;
  • Justify their annual budgets;
  • Air alternative views to the pro-union positions on privatization, teacher tenure, tuition-tax credits, school choice, and teacher standards;
  • Establish expeditious complaint procedures so that parents could challenge decisions and actions of teachers or administrators;
  • Make certain that student grades provide parents with adequate information about the educational progress of their children, or lack of it.

Nowadays, local matters are greatly affected by policy at higher levels. State governments now have a hand in everything from funding to curricular standards. President Clinton's Goals 2000 legislation, enacted last year and under review by the new Republican-controlled Congress, may bring down the heavy hand of the federal government, too (see sidebar, page 88). Similarly, PTA members who wish to be active at the local level must take account of PTA policies set by the state and national hierarchies and imposed on individual chapters.

At the least, the PTA has the power to keep parents informed of academic issues, from educational policies set at the national and state levels to the curriculum and employment practices of their local schools. At its best, the PTA could help frame the national debate over educational reform, lobby for some of the reforms that debate has already produced, and work to change the restrictive collective-bargaining statutes that tend to shield teacher unions and teachers from accountability and limit parental involvement.

Why the PTA Is Weak

  • PTA's ineffectiveness can be attributed to six inter-related areas:
  • Misdirected resources. At the local level, the PTA has become a fundraising auxiliary for school districts, while its child-advocacy efforts have focused on social, non-educational issues.
  • Stifled debate. Many PTA officials stifle open discussion of controversial issues and discourage parents from questioning the PTA's official positions.
  • Ignorance. Most PTA members have no idea of the policies advocated in their name by the PTA hierarchy at the national and state levels.
  • Careerism. The PTA's national officers are elected by a restrictive process that requires a national PTA presidential candidate to make a commitment of nearly 10 years to rise "through the chairs." Consequently, many PTA national leaders serve long after their own children have left school.
  • Transient membership. Parental interest is often high at the elementary-school level, tapers off in middle school, and all but disappears in high school. As a result, PTA officers and professional staff have inordinate influence.
  • Teachers-union influence. National PTA policies, which often are automatically adopted as state and local PTA policies, reflect the dominant influence of the teachers unions, especially the National Education Association (NEA).

Of these factors, by far the most important is the last. Parents and teachers in the PTA both claim to share the same goal: promoting the educational welfare of children. But the PTA's governance structure, in which unionized teachers play a major role, is fatally flawed. Fundamentally, parents and their children are the consumers of education; teachers are part of the producer complex. Elevating the interests of the producers above the interests of the consumers is a formula for irrelevance. In the last 12 months, I have attended two national PTA meetings and five state conventions, and I cannot recall a single instance in which any policy contrary to the interests of teachers unions was given a proper hearing.

Ever since the 1960s, the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have lobbied vigorously for state legislation requiring school boards to bargain collectively with teachers unions over the terms and conditions of employment. Teachers have the statutory right to bargain collectively in 34 states and the District of Columbia. Many school districts outside of those states engage in de facto collective bargaining with the teachers unions. By its refusal to challenge the teachers unions in collective bargaining, the PTA has eliminated itself as an independent advocate for parents. The PTA claims to "seek to participate in the decisionmaking process establishing school policy." But whenever school boards sacrifice parental interests to union interests as often happens in these negotiations, the PTA cannot and will not object.

Such impotence has been apparent at least since the PTA's 1968 position statement on "teacher negotiations, sanctions, and strikes." The PTA resolution, reaffirmed in 1987, identifies the "dilemmas" that teacher militancy and union negotiations impose on PTA members:

"1. If the PTA provides volunteers to man the classrooms, during a work stoppage, in the interest of protecting the immediate safety and welfare of children, it is branded as a strike breaker.

"2. If the PTA does not take sides in issue[s] being negotiated, it is accused of not being interested.

"3. If it supports the positions of the board of education, which is the representative of the public in negotiations, the teacher members of the PTA have threatened to withdraw membership and boycott the local PTA activities." (Italics added.)

Collective bargaining is used in most school districts to resolve such issues as teacher compensation for extra curricular activities, class size, parental grievance procedures, and the frequency and scheduling of parent/teacher conferences. In effect, the PTA does not take sides on issues subject to bargaining, regardless of their impact on students, parents, or the public. That position constitutes a major victory for unions and a setback for parents.

How are PTA members supposed to respond to this dilemma? The 1968 resolution urges them to be alert to symptoms of teacher dissatisfaction (abnormal turnover, complaints, and "teacher-supported legislation defeated by state legislature") before a strike and to promote the public airing of issues. At no point does the PTA suggest that teacher dissatisfaction may be unwarranted. The PTA's statement acknowledges that the teachers' threat to withdraw membership and boycott the organization greatly concerns the scores of PTA's professional staff members at the state and national organizations.

This surrender may have the cost the organization anyway. The PTA does not keep track of the ratio of teachers to parents among its membership. But we do know that membership peaked in 1966, when more than 12 million teachers, administrators, and parents were members of the National PTA.

The organization then lost more than six million members from 1966 to 1982, years when collective bargaining by teachers unions increased to unprecedented levels. With the withdrawal of parent activists who refused to accept the PTA's subservience to union interests, the PTA has evolved into an NEA front on non-educational as well as educational issues.

To be sure, the PTA sponsors many worthwhile programs and activities. Few of them, however, relate to education. The PTA doesn't merely waste its potential for constructive action; it may even hinder reform. In recent years, the teachers' unions' formidable influence over the PTA has been seen in the following issues:

Opposition to school choice. In addition to its refusal to challenge union positions in collective bargaining and teacher strikes, the PTA opposes vouchers and tuition-tax credits that would empower parents to choose private schools. Thus the PTA has capitulated to the NEA/AFT insistence on maintaining the public-school monopoly at all costs.

Delegates to the 1994 state convention of the California Congress of Parents, Teachers, and Students (the California PTA) broke into thunderous applause when a speaker congratulated them on defeating the school-choice ballot initiative known as Proposition 174. "You were the voice of the California children!" she shouted. More than one million California PTA volunteers defeated Proposition 174, she said, and "all the California Teachers Association did was put up the money."

In fact, the PTA provided a large bloc of foot soldiers in the campaign against Proposition 174. At one workshop, a PTA official reminded delegates that "we will pull the PTA Charter if any unit goes beyond the PTA agenda—as we would have with any PTA that supported vouchers."

No matter how modest a voucher plan might be, the PTA can be expected to oppose it. In 1994, New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman was expected to introduce a pilot program for school vouchers in the ailing Jersey City school system. Nevertheless, state and national PTA officials called the plan a "threat" to public education. As a result, New Jersey PTA delegates voted to "[t]ake an active role in opposing" private-school vouchers. Not surprisingly, the PTA and the New Jersey affiliate of the NEA joined a coalition to defeat this and all other voucher proposals.

Opposition to privatization. State PTAs structure their conventions to reinforce the national organization's opposition to privatization of school services. At Maryland's state PTA convention last year, the state vice president for legislative activity expressed hostility for privatization. Several delegates stomped out of a standing-room-only session on the topic when the state chairwoman refused to permit a balanced discussion of audience views on this issue. She instead rebutted criticism of PTA's opposition to contracting out school services. The reason for PTA opposition? Allegedly, some unionized employees could lose their jobs.

Focus on non-educational issues. PTA programs are designed to diminish dissatisfaction with poor school performance. Instead of conducting hearings to address the causes of academic deficiencies, PTAs sponsor events presenting students' work in the most favorable light. Much time and effort goes into women's auxiliary or support services: trip chaperoning, bake sales, and other fundraising activities. Clearly, good PTA parents are supposed to be passive supporters, not active critics, of schools and teachers.

Last summer, PTA delegates from 53 states and territories met in Las Vegas for the 98th annual national convention. Convention delegates received two days of workshops to learn how to produce materials that generate positive public reaction to PTA, respond to extremist groups challenging health/sex education curricula, implement the PTA's HIV/AIDS awareness programs, and rebut right-wing groups favoring school choice.

Delegates considered resolutions on violence in video games, inhalant abuse, the quality of indoor air in portable classrooms, and the sale, resale, and destruction of confiscated firearms. These are typical of the non-educational, social issues on which PTAs focus their time and money.

The PTA Stifles Dialogue

In its 1983 position statement in support of public education (revised and reaffirmed in 1991), the national PTA pledged to ensure that "adequate, objective, and language-appropriate information be available to parents so that they can make informed decisions." Unfortunately, the PTA is ignoring this directive.

Given the way PTAs are governed, it is virtually impossible for parent members to develop parent-friendly policies that may conflict with the interests of teachers unions. Parents ought to have a forum for advocating the adoption of reforms like school-choice programs and the privatization of school services, ensuring that teachers are available for frequent conferences with parents, challenging teacher tenure, and assessing the value of report cards, grades, and standardized tests for measuring student performance. Unfortunately, many PTA parents are finding it increasingly difficult to articulate their needs and lodge their complaints within the PTA.

Taking such action within the PTA would require parents to challenge teachers and teachers unions at meetings where both are present. Many parents fear teacher retaliation if they aggressively advocate parental over teacher interests. PTA parents also feel intimidated by the overwhelming pro-union bias in PTA publications and programs, as seen in the selection of convention issues and speakers.

When one speaker after another proclaims the dangers of school choice, for example, it is difficult for rank-and-file members to challenge the PTA's position on the issue. PTA convention programs and publications ought to include balanced discussion of the issues.

Indeed, open discussion of parental concerns is virtually absent at state and national PTA meetings. In practice, parents who seek accurate, unbiased information on educational issues are expected to fall in line with PTA positions.

"The PTA severely limits the opportunity for dialogue and dissent," says Jo Cooper, an Oklahoma parent and 19-year PTA veteran. In 1994, the state legislative chairman of the Oklahoma PTA warned her not to publicly oppose national PTA positions. Cooper's offense? In a public meeting in her suburban Oklahoma City school district, she opposed the national PTA's enthusiastic support of the Goals 2000 legislation and HR 6, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Cooper believes both pieces of federal legislation will undermine local control.

In 1992, Kathy Moran, a PTA official in Villa Park, California, received a letter from the state organization demanding that PTA leaders "do everything possible" to block the gathering of signatures for the 1992 state ballot initiative on school choice. When she tried to organize a debate on the merits of choice, she was told that PTA chapters must present only the anti-choice perspective.

What's a Parent to Do?

Is it any wonder that a backlash is developing? Small groups of concerned and sometimes angry parents are challenging the status quo—including the PTA's deference to the teachers unions. Among their options:

  • Withhold support. Withholding dues to the state and national organizations can be an effective way to protest. At its recent board meeting, the Indiana State PTA lamented that it had to amend its annual budget after losing 3,000 members and their dues.
  • Reform from within. Parents who believe the PTA can be reformed from within should form a "parental-control" caucus. Parents committed to pro-parent policies could bring about basic changes in the PTA. With a functioning caucus, they might find the strength to make their voices heard at state and national conventions. They could push to reform cumbersome procedures and restrictive election requirements in order to elect national PTA officers committed to pro-parent positions.

    Of course, for such internal reform to succeed, more parents now dissatisfied with PTA operations would have to become involved. Like-minded parents need to serve as officers of local chapters and as delegates to state and national conventions.

  • Assert leadership locally. In Greenwich, Connecticut, local PTA president Kay Wall questioned the state's implementation of a misnamed "outcome-based education" program in June 1992. Without the support of the PTA, she organized a protest group, the Committee to Save Our Schools (SOS), which contributed to the collapse of Connecticut's plan.

    Within her local PTA chapter, Wall has organized and chairs an Academic Challenge and Excellence Committee (ACE) that focuses on restoring high academic standards for all children. "They don't really want parents involved in the way I want to be involved," Wall says, "which is knowing the details of the curriculum, knowing what is being tested, and questioning the new standards." Wall is also encouraging members to challenge the PTA's official support of Goals 2000.

  • Revise PTA membership policy. As long as unionized teachers employed under collective bargaining are members of the PTA, it may be futile for parents to criticize educational policy. The NEA's own experience is instructive here. Before the enactment of collective-bargaining laws, the NEA included administrators at the local, state, and national levels. As a result, local NEA chapters were usually unable to promote teachers' interests, and actions of school administrators were seldom criticized.
  • Encourage competition. If parents feel that their PTA cannot represent their interests, they should form alternative organizations. Some active parents are requesting disaffiliation from the national PTA. Janice Thompson, a parent in North Carolina who calls herself a "keeper of the home," ardently opposes the PTA's social agenda and its close association with teachers unions. Thompson emphasizes the need for parental involvement in academic issues, and feels that PTA affiliation is a hindrance, not a help, to parents who wish to raise academic standards.

    To build her case for reverting back to a local parent-teacher organization (PTO), she called the North Carolina State PTA office in Raleigh and asked, "What is the last thing the PTA accomplished in the classroom?" Says Thompson, "They didn't even have an answer." Last March, parents at her elementary school voted to revert to a PTO. "At the local level," Thompson says, "we know the issues, and here we can work with parents and the school for the benefit of the students."

    The PTO is organized locally, with no allegiance to state or national associations. Local parents, teachers, and administrators direct the activities, which are not unlike those of the PTA. Governance is usually through simple bylaws, determined by all parents who attend the meetings. It's true, as PTA literature points out, that a PTO does not emphasize lobbying efforts—but such efforts might contradict local standards and parental positions. Members of PTOs have found they can work through the local education maze more easily without the national-policy prohibitions and teachers union allegiances of the PTA.

    Activist PTO parents direct their energy toward improving their own schools and their own children's educational opportunities. While many appreciate a PTO's autonomy, some recognize its lack of organizational training and support.

  • New opportunities for involvement. Current educational reforms are introducing new ways for parents to become involved in schools. For instance, charter and magnet schools within public-school systems often include provisions for parental involvement similar to requirements at private and parochial schools. School-management companies and for-profit businesses that offer services to public schools often stress active parental involvement. Parents should encourage this trend by insisting that school districts and schools retain the utmost flexibility in contracting for services.

At a time when special-interest groups are increasingly viewed in a negative light, the PTA is already well placed to act as a respected advocate for the educational interests of children and parents. As the struggle intensifies, the teachers unions will do their utmost to preserve the PTA as their subservient ally. The good news is that parents concerned about education want to do more than attend monthly PTA meetings. They are forming groups and creating procedures that will empower them as consumers of government services.