Search for Relevance Puts National PTA to the Test

The three capital letters - PTA - conjure up images of cadres of cheerful moms organizing bake sales, chaperoning field trips, and putting together fund-raising carnivals.

But as the National Parent Teacher Association gets ready to celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, this all-American organization is struggling to remain a force in the nation's school systems. Once a virtually guaranteed part of the educational landscape, it is now having to work harder to adapt to the busier schedules of working parents and to answer critics who say the group is failing to meet children's educational needs.

At its height in 1966, the PTA had 12 million members. Its membership now stands at 6.8 million.

The group's greatest challenge is keeping up with the changing American family, says PTA president-elect Lois Jean White. "More women are going to work now, and the family is different," she says.

"At one point, the average family was a mom, pop, 2.5 kids, a station wagon, a dog, and a cat," Ms. White says. "Now we have blended families, extended families, foster families, single-parent families, custodial families."

These societal shifts are forcing a redefinition of parental involvement in schools. "It's been very difficult for the PTA to find its role and purpose amid all this change," says Gene Maeroff, author of "The School-Smart Parent."

"It's become a kind of fossil - a relic from a day when the involvement of parents was largely the stereotypical bake sale," he says.

Despite society's dramatic transformation, the PTA's mission as an "advocate for children" remains unchanged, White argues. In fact, the focus on fund-raising is a fairly new phenomenon of the last 20 to 25 years, she says.

"As school funding has been cut, parents have had to fill in that void," White says. "When we were founded in 1897, fund-raising was not even heard of. What they dealt with then were issues, and we've continued to deal with issues. This is not just an educational organization. It deals with all facets of life that involve children."

But the National PTA's focus on such wide-ranging social issues as family planning and welfare reform has sparked criticism among its 26,000-plus local PTA groups. Parents in local PTAs are most interested in the quality of education in their own child's classroom.

"Over the years, the organization has taken positions that support the teachers and teachers' unions over the parents," says Charlene Haar, president of the Education Policy Institute in Washington who is writing a book on the PTA. While many parents support choice programs or vouchers for private schooling, for example, the PTA is opposed to such plans.

"Inevitably there are going to be divisions of interest," Mr. Maeroff says. "It's nice to speak in grand tones and believe that the interests of teachers and parents always coincide when it comes to schools. But that's not always true."

In 1968, the PTA adopted a policy of being neutral on teacher strikes and collective-bargaining issues. "In so doing, they aren't watching out for the best interests of children," Ms. Haar says.

As parents feel their views are being shut out by the National PTA, the movement toward independent parent organizations is picking up momentum, Haar says. "There are PTAs in different parts of the country that have been disaffiliating with the national and state PTA organizations as a way of protest, because their voices aren't being heard," she says.

Many local PTA members are unaware that a portion of their dues goes to support the state and national PTA organizations that devote themselves to lobbying and political activism.

"I had no idea they were so politically involved," says Tina Eberly, a parent in Lisbon, N.D., who is helping start a parents' organization at the local elementary school.

Many of the local parents assumed it would be a good idea to affiliate with the National PTA.

But now the North Dakota parents are considering the idea of an independent parents' group. "I don't think many of the parents care to be involved in political and social issues, which seems to be a lot of what the National PTA deals with," Eberly says. "We're more concerned with the education of kids, how we can help and support the teachers in our school system, and safety issues pertaining simply to our own school."

But White says the PTA's national lobbying efforts are an important aspect of the organization. "Somebody has got to be watching Congress and encouraging politicians to do things for children," she says.

Debra Lorier, a mother of four school-aged children in Westlake Village, Calif., disagrees. "I don't see any reason to have a national organization come in here and take part of our dues to promote something at the state and national level that we might be opposed to," she says.

Ms. Lorier is a member of the independent Parent Faculty Association at the elementary school her fifth-grade twins attend. But she has refused to join the PTA at the middle school because it is affiliated with the National PTA.

"It's not that we don't care about the national issues," Lorier says. "It's just that we're overwhelmed with the issues here. You've got to pick your battles wisely."

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