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September 1, 2017
Vol. 75
No. 1

Can Parent-Teacher Groups Work for All Students?

The 176-year history of parent-teacher organizations is complex—and entirely relevant to today's schools.

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PolicyEngagementEquity
Parents have been organizing home-school groups as long as there have been common, or public, schools. In 1841, the women of Kensington, Connecticut, prompted by noted educator Emma Willard, formed a Female Common School Association to hear student recitations and to support the local school by purchasing books and overseeing renovations (Cutler, 2000). Since then, school-community groups have proliferated and gained standing in a diverse array of communities. For a long time, many or most of the local groups were members of the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA), which was founded in 1897. Parent-teacher groups have long positioned themselves as organizations operating in the best interests of all schools, students, and teachers. The reality, however, is a bit more complicated.
As a historian and a sociologist, we have studied—from different disciplines—voluntary efforts to support, improve, and shape schooling and the curriculum. We approach our work considering who benefits from parents' organizing and what organizations bring to school communities. Do volunteers' kids benefit? Other kids? Who is included, and who is excluded? Also, we look to the history of parent-teacher organizing to gain insights on how to bring parents and teachers together today and how to harness parents' energies in ways that benefit as many students as possible.

History of Parent-Teacher Organizing

In February 1897, a group of society matrons—all female relatives of President Grover Cleveland's cabinet members—convened the first meeting of the National Congress of Mothers, the group that would later become the National PTA. Their goal was to disseminate the latest research on childrearing; to ensure that both poor, immigrant children and children of the rich would have access to a sound education; and to make sure that schools were clean, attractive, and staffed with skilled teachers equipped with the latest curriculum. The early PTA promoted the new educational innovation of the kindergarten and its motto of serving the children of the United States. In other words, the National PTA was committed, at least nominally, to serving all children, and community members joined the local association even if they didn't have children in the schools.
Perhaps most stunning, at a time of Jim Crow laws and acute racial animosity, the Mothers' Congress leaders declared in 1897 that they would not "draw the color line." Despite these early calls, however, the reality of racism in American life and segregated schools prevented black education leaders from participating in the white organization from the outset.
In the 1890s, black teachers in the segregated schools of the U.S. South were already engaged in founding school-improvement societies to support the rural schools at which they taught. Many more school-community groups for segregated schools were created in the early decades of the 20th century, which resulted in the founding of several state black PTA branches. A separate national association was formally founded in 1926, called the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers. It was a segregated branch of the National (white) PTA, organized to serve the segregated schools of the South.
The turn of the 20th century was a time of progressive reform in schools and society, when citizens believed they could remake the world through better education, efficiency in schools, and an educated parenthood. Nowhere was this expression as heightened as in the many PTA groups that increased greatly in number as the century wore on. During this time, local parent-teacher associations were responsible for every administrative, curricular, and social service reform in schools (Reese, 2002). Their initiatives ensured school lunches were served, water fountains were installed, and portraits of great American presidents were hung in classrooms.
Black PTAs carried out the same program of work; they were, after all, part of the same association and following the same bylaws. However, the black PTA also focused on racial uplift and interracial cooperation. In the first half of the 20th century, because segregated schools were grossly underfunded, black school-community groups relied heavily on fund-raising. This led white PTA leaders to criticize their black counterparts for focusing on raising money, arguing that they should emphasize curriculum and programming more (Woyshner, 2009).
In 1963, the National PTA enjoyed its peak membership of 12.1 million members. Local members learned important leadership skills, fundraising strategies, and parliamentary practices, and could move up in the ranks to state or national leadership. By this point, the organization was behind sweeping legislative reforms, such as the School Lunch Act of 1945, and had influence in major international initiatives, including the founding of UNESCO.
After the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the PTA's national white leadership, based in Chicago, instructed all southern units to integrate, but white units in the Deep South refused. During a protracted organizational desegregation process, which lasted until 1970, the National PTA experienced a mass exodus of both black and white members. By 1980, membership was cut in half. The organization's total membership remained around 6 million until the turn of the 21st century.
Since then, parent-teacher organizations (PTOs) not affiliated with the national organization have flourished at schools—in large part because they don't have to pay dues to a national organization, which means more money for the local school. Today, the National PTA's membership stands at approximately 4 million, while most schools in the United States have an active home-school council.

Contemporary PTOs

Today's PTOs continue to play an important role in public schools, especially as sources of funds. Across the country, these organizations help pay for everything from school supplies to enrichment programs to additional teachers. According to one recent study, the revenue that these groups raised more than quintupled between 1995 and 2010 (Nelson & Gazley, 2014). The same study found that PTOs that raised the most money were in districts serving more affluent communities with higher per pupil spending. Rather than making up for insufficient school budgets, PTOs have tended to increase funding inequality. These dynamics raise questions about the extent to which PTOs are serving all children or whether—as with the 20th-century controversy over integration—divisions around race and class undermine this potential.
Such funding differences can also exist within districts, as some schools—especially those serving large numbers of middle- and upper-income families—are able to raise significantly more money than those serving less-advantaged communities. According to a recent report from the Center for American Progress, PTOs in some schools raise hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of dollars each year (Brown, Sargrad, &Benner, 2017).
Some districts, aware of the ways PTO fund-raising can disproportionately benefit certain schools, have taken steps to balance the funding more fairly. For example, PTOs in Portland, Oregon, must give one-third of any revenues over $10,000 they raise each year to a fund that then redistributes the money according to school and student need (Brown, Sargrad, & Benner, 2017).
These arrangements can be contentious, however. Some parents in affluent Malibu, California, have moved to secede from the less wealthy Santa Monica School District because they want the money they raise going only to their children's schools (Goldstein, 2017). One parent and school board member argued that this practice provides "the opportunity to put your money where your heart is" (Goldstein, 2017). To these parents, sending money raised by one school community to another school undermined their vision of what a PTO should do, which is to allow parents to support their own children's education.

Parents in Urban Schools

The perils and promises of PTOs are especially apparent in urban public schools with significant middle-class engagement. In the past decade, some cities have witnessed an increase in the number of middle-class families who, seeking diversity and an urban lifestyle, have decided to forgo the customary move to the suburbs and instead raise their children in the city. Knowing that the public schools their children will attend are generally underfunded and underperforming, these families frequently become deeply involved in parent-teacher groups, working to improve facilities, reduce class size, and add additional programming (Cucchiara, 2013; Posey-Maddox, 2014).
Middle-class parents have helped transform schools in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and other cities that have long struggled to meet students' basic educational needs. Urban PTOs led by middle-class parents can also push schools to raise standards and increase accountability for educators. Although most middle-class parents are primarily interested in improving their own children's education experiences, their involvement can have widespread consequences, benefitting all students in the school. In such cases, parents can be justifiably proud that they are part of the solution.
But this is not the whole story. When middle-class parents become involved in urban public schools—often taking the lead in PTOs—their enthusiasm for "fixing" the school can marginalize other parents, especially low-income parents of color. These parents care just as much about their children's education as middle-class parents, but they may not have the time or money to be involved in the same way and can find their own contributions devalued (Posey-Maddox, 2014). Middle-class parents can also direct PTO resources in ways that are more beneficial to their own children than to the school as a whole.
At the same time, school and district leaders, excited about the resources middle-class families bring and worried such families will not stay, often grant them too much power, allowing middle-class parents to have outsized influence in decisions of policy or resource distribution.
In addition, as schools that were long avoided by middle-class families become more desirable, fewer spots are available to other students, often low-income children hoping to avoid failing neighborhood schools. Philadelphia's affluent Center City area is a case in point. As more middle- and upper-income families moved into the area and sent their children to their neighborhood public schools, spots in those schools for children from outside of Center City disappeared, making finding a good school much harder.
These issues get even trickier when parent-teacher groups take on the task of "marketing" the school to other middle-class families (Cucchiara, 2013). Middle-class parents may want to convince other families like theirs to use the neighborhood public school because more middle-class families generally mean more resources to support the school.
However, as Maia's research in Philadelphia has shown, efforts to market a school to middle-class families can send harmful messages to low-income families, telling them that they are unwanted by the school, prompting policies that disadvantage their children, and making it difficult for parents to advocate for their children (Cucchiara, 2013). At one school, some middle-class parents celebrated the enrollment of more "neighborhood" children, but parents who did not live in neighborhood (and had used the district's transfer system to enroll their children in the school) felt devalued. Said one low-income mother:
Every meeting we go to, they're talking about, "And two more families coming in. They're neighborhoods." That's kind of like a prejudice to me. … What's so important about this person from the neighborhood coming here? … It's kind of like I'm supporting this school that's not even supporting my kid, because he's not from the neighborhood. (p. 158–159)

What Educators Can Do

In some ways, then, local PTOs have run into some of the same issues of bias and inequality that bedeviled the national PTA in the 20th century. But there are ways to address such conflicts. At the school level, especially in diverse schools, leaders can work with the PTO to ensure that the resources it generates go to all students and that more advantaged parents don't wield disproportionate power within the school. They can name the issue as one that has come up in other schools, speak openly about the need to ensure it does not happen at their schools, and meet with the entire PTO or PTO leaders when they think troubling patterns are emerging. They can also reach out to low-income parents to make sure they know their contributions are valued and important.
Finally—and most challenging, but most important—school leaders should create time and space to address issues of power and privilege as they emerge with respect to parental involvement. Educators can create forums at faculty meetings and PTO gatherings, laying ground rules for productive conversations.
At one school that is striving to raise awareness about race and racism, school leaders host parent nights featuring guest speakers on topics such as racial identity development or implicit bias. The school has "normalized" conversations around race with students, teachers, and parents, making it easier to discuss difficult issues because community members already have the tools to make such conversations work. Parents and educators can agree that they are working to support the children, but pretending race and class do not exist or do not matter is generally an ineffective strategy.
School leaders can take an active role in encouraging PTO leaders—especially middle-class parents in racially and economically diverse schools—to rethink their assumptions that their actions are automatically beneficial to all or that they alone know what is best for the school. Without dismissing the perspectives of middle-class parents, leaders can consistently ask questions about how all students would be affected by a particular decision.
School leaders can also prompt PTOs in wealthy areas to explore the possibility of redistributing a portion of the funds they raise to less affluent schools. This is a challenging issue, but leaders can refer to the many benefits that come from a well-educated populace—and the profound costs of one that is poorly educated—to make a claim for education as a collective, rather than individual, good. Collaborating with community leaders who have strong equity agendas and deep ties to the community (such as religious or political leaders) could be helpful in waging a broader campaign.

Expressions of Democracy

Whether members of the National PTA or independent units, family-school groups continue to be expressions of democracy that give citizens a means to be involved in education. Parents, teachers, and community members come together to support schools, discuss and debate important issues, and work toward a collective goal. Such groups have been—and still are—able to bring about change at the local, state, and national levels and to support professionals in raising the standards in schools. Drawing on the research we've conducted, we believe the biggest challenge for such groups is being inclusive and working to eradicate inequalities. Of course, this is not surprising, because PTOs are profoundly American organizations. As such, they embody at once the best of America—its faith in the value of education and a better future—and the worst—its tolerance for severe and longstanding inequality. Yet, as expressions of our collective investment in our children, PTOs have within them the potential to chart a new path, one that is both more inclusive and more equitable.
References

Brown, C., Sargrad, S., & Benner, M. (2017). Hidden money: The outsized role of parent contributions in school finance. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.

Cucchiara, M. B. (2013). Marketing schools, marketing cities: Who wins and who loses when schools become urban amenities. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Cutler, W. W. (2000). Parents and schools: The 150-year struggle for control in American education. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Goldstein, D. (2017, April 8). PTA gift for someone else's child? A touchy subject in California. New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2017/04/08/us/california-pta-fund-raising-inequality.html

Nelson, A. A., & Gazley, B. (2014). The rise of school-supporting nonprofits. Education Finance and Policy, 9(4), 541–566.

Posey-Maddox, L. (2014). When middle-class parents choose urban public schools: Class, race, and the challenge of equity in public education. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Reese, W. J. (2002). Power and the promise of school reform: Grassroots movements during the progressive era, 2nd Edition. New York: Teachers College Press.

Woyshner, C. (2009). The National PTA, race, & civic engagement, 1897–1970. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press.

End Notes

1 In this article, we use the term PTA in reference to the national organization or any of its local units. For other groups not affiliated with the National Parent Teacher Association, we use more generic terms, such as parent-teacher or school-community groups or organizations, or PTOs for short.

Christine Woyshner has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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