Rethinking Parent-Teacher Ties

By its own admission, the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) says membership has been "static" for the past decade. This fact alone should send a signal to this more than 100-year-old organization that it would do well to stick to bettering relations between parents and teachers, and leave the pursuit of a social agenda alone.

While the PTA has come a long way from successfully getting schools to serve lunches, it's perhaps gone too far. With a reported 6.2 million members and at least one lobbyist on Capitol Hill, the PTA's a force to be reckoned with. Members are asked to form "phone trees," for example, to lobby politicians on various issues and legislation. But should this organization be taking such strong stands on such a wide variety of education-related issues, ranging from vouchers to gay and lesbian rights?

Many parents, at least, say no. They've formed PTOs (parent-teacher organizations) instead, in an effort to keep the basic ideas of the PTA alive, but without the political and financial strings attached. So many, in fact, that some 75 percent of all parent groups in the country are planning bake sales, spring flings, and fostering better parent-teacher relations under PTO, not PTA, umbrellas.

Parents in some 22 school districts in Utah are among the latest breakaways. Reasons: mostly high PTA dues (PTOs typically have lower dues, and no national organization) and, occasionally, differing ideologies. Tim Sullivan, who publishes the PTO magazine (, mostly to help link innovative, local PTO ideas and people together.

He gets 10 to 20 calls a week from parents wanting to leave the PTA and form a PTO. "The groups I talk to often look at how much it costs - and what are they getting in return. In many cases, they're deciding the math doesn't work," Mr. Sullivan says. (In Massachusetts, for example, PTA membership stands between 6 and 7 percent of parents.)

The PTA has been quick to argue that it simply supports public education and favors politicians who support its strong child-oriented educational views. A dues increase the PTA says will bring in $7 million will reportedly be used for a big marketing campaign across the country.

But it will take more than public relations to convince parents that the preponderance of that money is being used to create better school communities.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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