Op-Ed: PTA ‘badly broken’

In the debate over how to improve public education, we pay lip service to the home-school partnership. Parent participation in schools is one of the four pillars of academic success, alongside teachers, principals and resources, but the primary instrument of this relationship — the parent-teacher association (PTA) — is badly broken.

As millions of American children returned to school and PTAs struggled to find new recruits from ever-reluctant parents, National PTA, the apex body of over 24,000 American school PTAs, announced staff and budget cuts to meet a $1.5 million deficit — the result of falling membership and a failed attempt to raise dues.

The decline of this once-vaunted jewel of American civic culture should concern us. The PTA’s current woes are part of the larger failure of school integration, exacerbated by demographic change. PTAs do not collect data on race, but in my experience as a PTA leader in Montgomery County, black, Latino and Asian families are poorly represented. Asians and Latinos are largely absent from leadership positions.

I have heard mainly economic and cultural explanations for the lack of participation, both of which fall flat. At one school PTA where I was a member, reducing annual dues had no effect on increasing membership. And the idea that new immigrants do not appreciate or understand the PTA’s role cannot explain why U.S.-born parents do not join in large numbers.

The culture argument is even less valid because the most under-represented group in the PTA is the “T.” Only a small handful of teachers pay the often-nominal membership fees ($10-$15) or take leadership positions. More teachers are active PTA members in their own children’s schools, not where they teach.

In high schools, which mostly have PTSAs, students are missing in equal measure.

Not being representative is a big reason PTAs have become less relevant over the years. While there is variation among schools, PTAs generally run fundraisers, support staff appreciation and help with afterschool activities, but they otherwise remain separate from the business of education.

PTA leaders have a reputation of being cliquey. Membership drives seek new followers rather than leaders. When leaders do pass the torch, they are often resentful and unwilling to share social capital, which is key to successful PTAs.

The structure of the PTA is also flawed. Maryland PTA’s mandatory bylaws template for local school PTAs, for example, makes school principals automatic members of PTA boards, creating a Parent-Administrator-Association. There is no requirement that teachers, for whom the organization is named, serve as PTA officers.

In my experience, parents and teachers stay away because they do not see the PTA as an effective instrument for change. School administrators, in turn, exclude PTAs from policy decisions because they are unrepresentative.

To fix the problem, we must welcome teachers into the PTA by offering them roles where they can be effective, and we must ensure that school administrators truly engage the community.

This is harder than we might think. Teachers are overstretched with endless paperwork and testing burdens, and they need relief. We must hire more teachers so they can find the time to engage in the task of rebuilding the home-school partnership. District leaders must ensure genuine PTA involvement in principal selection, introduce formal mechanisms for community input on principal performance and conduct community engagement evaluations for principals and other administrators.

A revitalized home-school partnership is crucial to securing the resources and the talent necessary for improving our schools, and to begin to replenish the reservoir of American social capital the PTA used to be.

As published in The Baltimore Sun on September 17, 2019.

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