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'P' in PTA is for Politics, Not Parents
National PTA leaders are urging delegates to its annual convention in Chicago this month to approve a 100% increase in membership dues. The hike is only from $1 to $2 but, if approved, National PTA revenues will increase by more than $6 million.

According to the treasurer's report, National PTA revenues totaled $8.4 million for fiscal year 1998, but leaders say that amount is insufficient. What they don't mention is that the increase is needed for lobbying. "With this increase, PTA can be everywhere you would like to be," leaders say.

The call for a dues increase coincides with PTA's major push for new federal funding for public schools. While its stated goal of increasing parental involvement in education is good, PTA's concept of parental involvement would increase the power of teachers unions and strengthen the hand of the public school establishment. Its leaders avoid mentioning that earlier PTA-backed legislation - the federal Goals 2000 program - failed to achieve PTA's objective.

Missed Goal 
Enacted in 1994, Goals 2000 was in part a culmination of National PTA's effort to win government support for increased parent involvement, but the law is not parent-friendly. It includes, for example, this provision: "The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education shall ensure that all federally funded programs which provide for the distribution of contraceptive devices to unemancipated minors develop procedures to encourage, to the extent practical, family participation in such programs." In actuality, the law undermines the authority of parents who oppose their children's participation in contraceptive programs.

In the National Education Goals Panel's most recent report dated December 1999, 44 states and the District of Columbia reported no change in parent involvement, one of its eight failed goals. Six states reported less involvement than in the previous year. Still, the panel claimed that its "bold venture" worked because the goals had "helped stimulate reforms" in some states.

Back for More 
National PTA has responded to the failure of Goals 2000 by seeking more federal programs to increase parent involvement in schools, most notably the Parent Accountability, Recruitment and Education National Training (PARENT) Act (S. 1556, H.R. 2801). This Act would be incorporated in the $13 billion Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the omnibus federal law affecting K-12 schools.

PARENT would allow schools to use federal funds to increase parental involvement as outlined in PTA guidelines, but the ESEA already allows funds for parent involvement activities. Currently-funded activities include family literacy programs, parent meetings and training, transportation and child care so that parents can visit schools, and even the purchase of materials for parents who help their children study at home.

Most parents don't need Goals 2000 or the PARENT Act to be involved in their children's education. Research suggests that parents would more likely become involved in their children's education if they were consulted on substantive issues such as teacher evaluation procedures and criteria, teacher absences and curriculum basics.

Not for Parents 
Increased federal funding for welfare and education programs has been a prominent feature of National PTA's lobbying for more than 100 years. The organization characterizes these efforts as a service to all children, but political advocacy is objectionable to many parents, pitting parents and teachers against other politicized groups. National PTA admits that there are more than 200 organizations that compete with its agenda.

Like teacher unions, the PTA feels threatened by policies that give parents a choice among schools, such as charter schools, vouchers and tax credits. The group even opposes home schooling - the ultimate in parent involvement in education!

Estimates indicate that only 10% of K-12 parents pay dues to the PTA - and the majority of those are unaware of its extensive lobbying activities and the positions it takes that are unfriendly to parents. Nevertheless, National PTA has clout. If its leaders succeed in increasing member dues and expanding the organization's lobbying efforts, PTA could significantly damage parents' interests while increasing taxpayer funds for the public school establishment.

Affiliated with PTA? Break Away! 
Instead of implementing National PTA's agenda, many local affiliates are opting to disaffiliate from the mandatory, unified hierarchy that requires payment of dues to its local, state and national branches. Independent parent/teacher organizations (PTOs) have significant advantages over PTA affiliates in that:

  • PTOs do not engage in lobbying, but encourage interested parents to pursue such efforts through other organizations and political parties. 
  • All funds raised and dues assessed remain with local schools.  
  • A PTO is free to consider no dues or dues exceptions of one kind or another. 
  • Local parents determine all goals, activities and regulations. 
  • Membership and participation re-quirements are often flexible in PTOs.

Alternatives to National PTA 
While National PTA is perhaps the best-known organization advocating parental involvement in education, there are others, including:

National Network of Partnership Schools, 3303 N. Charles St., Suite 200, Baltimore, MD 21218, phone 410/516-8800, argues that successful education programs "will not come from Washington." Instead, "parents at the local level must be motivated and activated."

National Coalition of Parent Involvement in Education, 3929 Old Lee Highway, Suite 91-A, Fairfax, VA 22030, phone 703/359-8973, is a coalition of 61 education associations and advocacy groups that support public education. They share information, work together on projects and serve as an advisory group.

Charlene Haar is a research associate for the Social Philosophy & Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and president of the Education Policy Institute in Washington, DC, website www.education policy.org This article is excerpted from Organization Trends, May 2000, Capital Research Center, 202/483-6900.

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