- The Washington Times - Monday, July 9, 2001

The name "PTA" may conjure up images of moms working closely with schools, carnivals and other money-raising efforts, and of close relationships between parents and those who teach their children.

Increasingly, that image comes not from PTA's, but from "PTO's" or Parent Teacher Organizations, independent parent groups that choose to organize at schools without any affiliation to the national Parent Teacher Association.

Why the change? Parent activists are finding an increasing divide between the purposes of their state and national PTA leaders and their own objectives. And they're therefore withdrawing their memberships and forming PTO's.

Since 1966, PTA membership has dropped from 12 million to 6.6 million, even as student enrollment has risen from 31 million to 52 million. In response to budgetary cutbacks, the PTA raised its dues a few years ago and 400,000 members dropped their membership. This spring, parents in 22 school districts in Utah dropped out. In some states, PTA membership has dropped as low as 6 percent.

Two reasons for these departures seem to dominate, and the national PTA appears unwilling to address either.

Reason One is a matter of priorities: Resources are important, and parents want to make sure that they spend it on things that matter. Since PTO's don't have to send any money to a national or state organizations, they spend dues on local school programs, while the average local PTA ships $750 to the state and national offices. The money, which could be used on materials to enrich the school, disappears in efforts to build the national and state leadership into powerbrokers.

Reason Two has to do with the fourth "r" of American education: relevance. Look at a troubled school system like the one in Detroit, Mich. Poor reading instruction, lack of high standards and bureaucracy plague the academic environment, causing massive dropouts and school failure. Rather than focus on these issues, the state PTA aligns with the state school employee unions to campaign for more money against greater choices for parents, never stopping to look at the systemic failures a pattern mirrored on the national level.

Parents struggling with the quality of textbooks in their schools get no help from the national PTA. Instead of offering information about research-based instructional methods, the PTA offers pabulum like, "Plan projects for your PTA and parents to restore books that are not in good condition or to cover books to protect them from wear and tear."

The 60 percent of parents who believe teacher pay increases should be tied to student performance also get no recognition. The PTA marches in lockstep with the school employee unions, particularly the National Education Association, which opposes performance incentives. Many parents are shocked to discover that the PTA president is an NEA member and the PTA received rent-reduced office space from the NEA for 15 years.

Instead of addressing issues that help poor kids trapped in failing schools, the PTA sentences them to failing schools by opposing vouchers and supporting barriers to effective charter schools. The Ohio PTA is party to a lawsuit challenging charter schools in Ohio, which have been lifeboats to many in troubled districts.

Ignoring these issues, the national PTA seeks to launch a $7 million public relations campaign, funded by a dues increase. (Last month, the national PTA convention approved a 50-cent membership fee increase to $1.75 per year, the second increase in two years but still less than the $1 increase originally proposed.)

The national PTA's agenda seems aimed more at energizing a core group of activists than broadening the influence of rank-and-file parents in their own schools. As Patty Yoxall, PTA director of public relations, noted: "If we get a bit more focused, people may leave us. We want people who are committed to this agenda, and if they're not, that's fine. Go be a PTO and have a nice life."

That is precisely what thousands of parents are doing by forming their own Parent Teacher Organizations, free from the influence (and dues demands) of the national PTA. And by taking charge of their own parent groups in their own communities, these parents will be far more potent than they ever could be tied to a national leadership with an agenda increasingly not their own.

Jeanne Allen is president of the Center for Education Reform.

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