Parent Teacher Association (PTA) members and officials often bristle at the suggestion that the PTA is dominated by the teacher unions. If one thinks of domination only in terms of explicit union commands to the PTA, this reaction is understandable. In practice, however, teacher union domination is subtle but highly effective. It shows up in the selection of speakers and convention programs, the issues that are voted upon and the ones shoved under the rug, the avoidance of union identification among delegates to PTA conventions, the immediate put-downs of any effort to raise union issues, the similarity between PTA and teacher union legislative agendas, and the PTA’s leading role in union- funded coalitions. Furthermore, by its own admission, the PTA has never disagreed with the National Education Association (NEA) on any significant, substantive issue. This is an astonishing admission in view of the conflicts of interest between parents as consumers of educational services and teachers as producers of them.

At state and national PTA conventions, the union presence is pervasive but not usually apparent to convention delegates. Inasmuch as the divisive union/parent issues are not raised, delegates are not aware of any coercion to adopt union positions. Delegates who are employed by the teacher unions or are teacher union activists frequently conceal that fact. Sometimes union officials are identified as such on PTA programs, but the union stake in the issues is artfully concealed. For example, at the 1998 national convention, the speaker on charter schools was Joan Buckley, who directs American Federation of Teachers (AFT) programs on educational issues. Officially, the AFT does not oppose charter schools. Instead, its strategy is to concede the abstract possibility that charter schools may be a constructive reform while insisting upon requirements that render it virtually impossible to establish charter schools. In listing the AFT’s utopian criteria for a good charter school, Buckley never mentioned the AFT’s position that charter school employees be subject to a union contract. Actually, if her other conditions were accepted, there would never be a charter school. Of course, having a union official as the sole speaker in a two-hour program on charter schools is indefensible if the objective is a fair analysis of their rationale and operations. It is tantamount to having only a representative of the tobacco companies address a two hour meeting on tobacco issues.

To summarize, the PTA has accepted its subordinate role; new members simply take it for granted that the PTA will be a support group for teachers and teacher unions; supposedly, pupils will benefit as a result. Inasmuch as what the unions seek for teachers is not always good for parents or students, the PTA’s neutrality is a major strategic victory for the NEA and AFT. When local PTAs oppose union positions in collective bargaining, the NEA does not hesitate to remind the PTA that its only option is to remain silent. In April 1994, at the urging of its executive committee, NEA president Keith Geiger wrote to the president of the National PTA after the relationship between the NEA and a local PTA did not improve following settlement of a job action.

Geiger “…emphasized the long-standing tradition of cooperation and respect between the two organizations at the national level and asked the PTA president to remind its local affiliate of the National PTA’s policy of neutrality in labor/management disputes in school districts.” Needless to say, local NEA affiliates do not object to PTA support for union positions; in fact, the locals frequently try to obtain their support in bargaining disputes. Unfortunately, if the parents, the parties most likely to be disadvantaged by union proposals, are silent, it becomes more difficult for others to challenge them.

To some extent, the union-domination thesis may be erroneous because PTA leadership probably shares much of the educational and social/political views of union leaders. Both groups support the agenda of the left wing of the Democratic party. PTA leaders who aspire to National PTA leadership fear they will never attain it if they criticize PTA policies. The perception may be mistaken, but it suffices to stifle open dissent among aspirants to leadership positions. In any case, because local PTAs are supposed to be bound by National PTA policy, the PTA’s neutrality in collective bargaining has removed the PTA as a player on the school issues that matter most to parents.

What is unusual about the PTA is that it often serves as the front organization for the coalitions of public school organizations (educational producers). Although producer organizations are usually much more powerful than consumer or client organizations (such as parent organizations) in our society, this is an astonishing outcome for an organization that would not accept teachers as members when it was founded.

Texas Solutions for Poor Student Progress

Two of the National PTA’s local affiliates in Texas (Austin and Dallas) made headline news recently for similar reasons, but alternative solutions may present a dilemma for the organization.

Citing a widespread perception that trust in the school board and administration is “greatly lacking,” leaders of the Austin City Council of PTAs resolved to:

  • form a special committee to address the district problems and promote
  • academic improvement;
  • report the committee’s findings to the school board; and,
  • send the committee report to local PTAs to better focus discussions on improving each school.

The PTA document also says the 78,000 student district cannot expect academic improvement until it addresses such issues as resources for low-performing students, teacher and administrator turnover, leadership and real parental involvement.

Acknowledging that “it is very rare” when a PTA challenges the system, the president spoke for thousands of parents who don’t believe the district is paying attention to their concerns. She cited how parents and the PTA were useful for a bond election campaign in 1996, but now feel ignored in academic and other decisions.

In Dallas, the board of the Dallas Council of PTAs urged its members and their children to boycott a district-wide survey for fear that the results would identify too many problems with the district. Finding fault with the district could “bolster the case of school vouchers, which would prove that public schools are not working,” said the PTA council president.

Despite the PTA’s call for a boycott among its members, late last year Dallas school district officials surveyed educators, support staff members, parents and children. The deadlines for returning the questionnaires were extended, however, perhaps reflecting the reluctance of those surveyed. No results have been released in the school district survey financed by Ross Perot, who donated about $1 million to fund it.

Like the PTA, a Perot spokesman said he would “fight any effort to use the survey as ammunition in the pro-voucher movement.”

Potential solutions for these problems in the public school districts are limited for the National PTA and its state and local affiliates. The PTA officially opposes school choice alternatives such as public charter schools, tax credit proposals to offset education expenses, school vouchers, and even privatization of school services.

In dealing with the teacher unions, the National PTA has adopted a position of neutrality which renders parent involvement useless in issues which challenge the teacher unions.

If the local affiliates continue to follow their National PTA prescriptions, few alternatives remain to parents who wish to be effective. Disaffiliation with the National PTA may be a viable option for parents hoping to increase student academic performance and participate in meaningful ways to benefit students.

Charlene Haar, is Research Associate, Social Philosophy and Policy Center, Bowling Green State University and President of the Educational Policy Institute, based in Washington, DC, an educational organization dedicated to market oriented approaches to education issues and problems, and to the protection and defense of individual rights in the context of education policies and practices. A former Public School teacher, she was a 1992 U. S. Senate Candidate, and speaker at the 1992 National Republican Convention. Her book, The PTA: The Untold Story, will be published later this year.