Taking The “P” Out of PTA

Many parents, desperate to help their children because of concern over their inability to read, write or follow simple logic, reach out to trusted, familiar institutions for answers and for hope. When dealing with issues of education, the PTA seems to be a reasonable, logical choice. It’s a choice many are learning to regret.

Once upon a time, before the world was turned upside down, The Parent Teachers Association (PTA) was the standard of virtue and old-fashioned American patriotism. It was the symbol of the bond among parents, child and classroom. Moms baked cookies and dropped them by the class and the teacher greeted her with a warm smile. That’s not a scene from “Leave It To Beaver,” that’s the way it really was.

PTA meetings were a place where parents organized fund raising drives to buy new books, audio-visual tools or playground equipment. Moms and teachers could sit down and discuss how the children were doing in class and they could outline areas where the parents might help at home. It was real dialog and parental involvement. It was a harmonious relationship. And it worked.

But that was before psychologists and teacher’s unions took over the classroom. Today, as an education crisis explodes out of control, as more and more money is thrown at the problem, as politicians pontificate and as federal rules and guidelines invade the once serene setting of the local classroom, parents are scolded for not participating enough.

Overlooked in the criticism is the fact that parents are trying harder than ever before to get involved. They’re frightened about their child’s inability to learn and they want to help. But PTA meetings aren’t like they used to be. Today, parents who dare raise questions about school policy or concerns about federal programs like Goals 2000 are, many times, instantly and viciously attacked as “extremists” out to damage the education process. They’re accused of being book burners and censors. This at a PTA meeting? Why? What’s changed over the past decade or two?

The PTA has changed. A check of the policies of the National PTA will find that the organization has become little more that an advocate for the agenda of the National Education Association (NEA). Parental advocacy is nowhere to be found. In spite of parental concerns, the PTA has unquestioningly and vigorously supported Goals 2000, School-to-Work, and the entire restructuring agenda. The policies of the National PTA are, by its bylaws, automatically adopted by state and local clubs.

The PTA’s consistent support of teacher’s union concerns, instead of parental objections or student welfare, are blatantly spelled out in a 1968 position paper (reaffirmed in 1987) concerning teacher negotiations and strikes. The paper says:

1. “If the PTA provides volunteers to man the classroom 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 issues 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.”

The paper goes on to suggest the proper PTA activity should be to stay alert to symptoms of teacher dissatisfaction.

So there you have the “proper” PTA response to a teacher’s union issue – don’t be a scab, don’t consider the children’s needs and be sure to watch out for teacher discomfort. Where is there room for parental concerns? There isn’t any.

How has this happened? Over the past two or more decades the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have been actively pursuing control of the PTA. They saw its potential to be just what it has become – a tool in the arsenal to push union agendas. The PTA represented one of the only outlets parents had to criticize those programs. If the PTA could be taken over then those voices could be silenced.

Today, most PTA activists and officials are former teachers. Local presidents are often active teachers. And they run those meetings with an iron hand. That’s the reason why there is such a violent reaction to parents who innocently question educational programs or activities.

The National PTA has taken an active role in the effort to silence organized critics of education restructuring, going so far as to produce a pamphlet called, “The National PTA’s guide to Extremism.” The paper blatantly compares anyone who questions school restructuring programs directly to groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the American Communist Party, even the Salem witch hunts. Clearly, the PTA’s official policy is to show no tolerance to opposing views and to stamp out opposition wherever it turns up.

Interestingly, the NEA distributes a survey to teachers asking if there is any evidence of “extremist” activities in their school, including anyone raising questions about such programs as Goals 2000 or in-school health clinics. They even name potentially dangerous groups, including the Christian Coalition and Eagle Forum. Coincidence? Think again. Both the NEA and PTA papers probably came off the same printing press.

Clearly this is not your mom and dad’s PTA. Only the empty shell of a once-trusted institution remains. But deep down in the PTA’s old cellar the wizard driving the whole mechanism has the true master’s name emblazoned on his chest – and there’s no “P” in NEA. So today, parents who want to have a voice in education decisions will have to find another outlet. And they must prepare for war instead of cookie baking. It’s the nineties and the education establishment doesn’t take prisoners.

Tom DeWeese
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Tom DeWeese is President of the American Policy Center and National Grassroots Coordinator for CFACT (Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow) working to help local activists organize into Freedom Pods (www.CFACT.org). He is also the author of three books, including Now Tell Me I Was Wrong, ERASE, and Sustainable: the WAR on Free Enterprise, Private Property, and Individuals.