IT WAS A MID-SUMMER SHOWdown at the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Republicans were pushing a bill to provide scholarships to low-income students in the District of Columbia, and committee Democrats knew exactly who to turn to for testimony against parental choice in education: an organization ostensibly for parents, the National PTA. It was the second time this year that a PTA representative had testified against parental choice before the committee.
Most Americans know the PTA as a world of bake sales, fun fairs, and teacher-appreciation lunches, and at the local level it is. The national organization, however, has a different agenda. Whether the issue is opposing educational choice or calling for increased federal funding for public-school programs, politicians on the left know they have a friend in the National PTA. But its one-sided politics are out of touch with its members, and political analysts say the National PTA soon may have to decide whether its priority is representing parents or its liberal political agenda.
With the slogan "every child, one voice," the National PTA claims to be the largest volunteer child advocacy group in the country. It boasts a membership of 6.5 million, a figure that-if accurate-would represent about 20 percent of all families with children in grades K-12. But analyst Charlene K. Haar, author of The Politics of the PTA, contests that the PTA's calculation is inflated by including teacher members and duplicate counting of PTA parents with more than one child. She estimates that only about 10 percent of families with school-age children are PTA members.
By joining a local PTA, parents automatically enroll in their state PTA as well as the national organization. A single annual fee, typically around $5, is collected locally for dues at all three levels. With the national portion at $1.75, members can afford to pay little attention to what the National PTA is up to. Most do.
Local PTA leaders are friendly, gregarious women like Kim Johnson, president of Riverside Elementary School PTA in Pearl River, La., whose chapter's most recent fundraising success-$7,000 in new playground equipment-is typical of a local PTA. Mrs. Johnson receives a monthly e-mail from the National PTA legislative department but doesn't pass it on because of lack of interest: "There's not much that concerns us with them." For Mrs. Johnson, it's worth continuing to pay dues for programs like Reflections, an annual arts contest sponsored by the National PTA.
Not everyone agrees. PTA annual reports show a loss of about 450,000 members between 1993 and 1998. PTA attrition has resulted in the rise of independent parent-teacher organizations (PTOs), which focus exclusively on local school matters.
With the National PTA facing the dual problems of attrition and apathy over its political agenda, consultants have suggested increasing dues. "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," was the PTA public-relations director's response when a proposed dues increase met resistance at the 2000 National PTA convention, reports Ms. Haar. That attitude runs counter to the conventional wisdom that has kept dues low and membership high. Eventually, delegates adopted a smaller dues increase than originally proposed, leaving the matter currently unresolved.
Increased parental engagement in National PTA politics would come at the cost of a winnowed membership and forfeit the group's claim to being the country's largest volunteer child advocacy group. That dilemma leads analysts like Ms. Haar to question the future of the National PTA. She describes it as "an organization that has lost its rationale for existence along with its independence."
Its independence has been traded for a co-dependent relationship with the National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest teachers union. The NEA's political leanings are unmistakable: NEA-affiliated and subsidized delegates to the Democratic National Convention outnumber delegates sent by any state other than California.
Teacher domination in the PTA organization dates back to the early 1900s. The original PTA was the National Congress of Mothers in 1897. Mothers assembled in Washington "for the interchange of views, and the study of home problems which can be solved by woman alone." The Mothers' Congress developed into an annual event to discuss the welfare of women and children, and formal schooling became a significant issue after about five years. In 1908, the group adopted a new name to reflect the shifting dynamic: the National Congress of Mothers and Parent-Teacher Associations. Since the 1920s, the NEA has dominated the National PTA educational agenda.
In lockstep with the NEA, the National PTA's legislative program includes a liberal social-welfare agenda that reaches far beyond the school. In June, the National PTA even wrote senators to oppose the much-debated Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Project. Indeed, National PTA material can give the impression that school is almost an afterthought. "When you join PTA, you join millions of others who care about issues that affect kids. Kids and violence. Kids and TV. And of course, kids and school," says the group's website.
As for its education agenda, the National PTA takes an expansive view of the public-school mission. Elementary counseling, mental health initiatives, and comprehensive health education, which has been known to include explicit sex education for elementary school children, are all on the agenda, as well as support for programs that "teach respect for diversity." For the National PTA, like the NEA, diversity includes differences in sexual preferences.
That is all very distant from local PTA activities, where parents are elbow-deep in spaghetti dinners and raffle tickets. Freddie Johnson, president of the John Adams Elementary School PTA in Alexandria, Va., says his chapter tries to stay away from lobbying efforts. They would detract from the fundraising and booster activities that are more central to the chapter's mission, in Mr. Johnson's words, "to assure that schools are provided with qualified teachers and to make sure they are provided with the tools to do their job."
Local PTAs frequently go to bat in budget negotiations to keep teachers and educational resources at their schools. Where funding falls short, PTAs sometimes make up the difference-a practice the National PTA discourages since it runs counter to lobbying efforts for more tax funding.
The National PTA joins the chorus that proclaims parents as children's "first teachers," but fails to clamor for their place at the education decision-making table. And it adamantly opposes the policy that would give parents the most say-parental choice in education.
What do parents want from the PTA? National PTA leaders seem to be paying little heed. A century after the Mothers' Congress, what parents want is an issue the National PTA would do well to consider.
-Jennifer A. Marshall is a policy analyst for Empower America in Washington, D.C.