Parent Teacher Associations are among the bedrock civic groups of American-style democracy, open to all parents and providing a forum for two-way interaction with your school administration that allows a degree of input into how your child’s school is run. The question for PTA leaders who want to make a difference in their communities is this: what are your goals for using the PTA to promote real change in the education system? Do you have a vision for how the education system should work in an ideal world and a plan for how to get there? Or are you content to go with the flow, conforming to the outdated bakesale/gala/fundraiser paradigm of our parents’ generation?
The typical PTA bylaws available from the Department of Education spell out the DoE’s approved objectives in bland bureaucratese: “to provide support and resources to the school…develop a cooperative working relationship between parents and staff…provide opportunities to participate in school governance and decision-making.” The objectives are constrained to ensure that parents play a subordinate role in the school and basically stay out of the principals’ and superintendent’s ways.
But PTAs can do much more than this! Think about it: there is no other organization in most neighborhoods better positioned to serve as a hub of social interaction and organization. Every parent or caretaker with a child in the school visits at least twice a day, at drop off and dismissal. Parents are welcomed into the school for PTA meetings, student performances, parent–teacher nights, field trips, assemblies and other public functions. The lives of busy parents who barely have time to schedule playdates for their kids naturally intersect at the school building on a daily basis. In order to leverage this potential power, the PTA needs to abandon the stale, 1950s, Betty Crocker image and view itself as a vehicle for community organizing.
During my tenure as a PTA president at PS 503, just over the border in Sunset Park, we created a program of community-organizing, following principals laid out in the book Organizing for Social Change, bringing in speakers including elected officialsm, representatives of city agencies (such as the Mayor’s Office of Immigration Services and the NYPD), teachers and educators in order to supply information that was relevant to a broad range of parents. We made the meetings interesting, fun and informative, and vastly increased our monthly attendance from an average of 15 or so to more than 80 parents a month. With this organization in place we initiated a campaign to make the elected officials responsible for shortcomings in the school, particularly for upgrades to the deteriorating infrastructure. We obtained capital funding for after-school programs, a new music program, a new dance studio and gym floor, paid for not out of parents’ pockets but the city’s, which is ultimately responsible for providing a high-quality education to every child in the city.
What’s wrong with the current PTA paradigm? If your organization adheres to the DoE objectives, you basically serve as a supplement to the DoE, which can then afford to offload its responsibility to educate your child in a well-rounded and meaningful way, eliminating such crucial programs as art, dance, music and sports so the school can focus on only those parts of the curriculum that affect its standing on state tests. With an overwhelming amount of objective independent studies demonstrating the advantages to children of these so-called “extracurricular subjects,” why should parents accept this system, which essentially abandons their kids to the marketplace and suggests that the way to have a well-rounded child is to raise money for these programs out of your own pocket? It’s a sellout: by expecting parents to fill in the gaps out of their own pockets, the DoE contributes to the alarming level of economic inequality that exists in the city today.
Parents with good jobs, education and resources will do well by their children, while parents with fewer resources will see their kids fall further and further behind. The first step in organizing our community for meaningful change is to grow the organization. This demonstrates the power of the group in concrete terms and provides more hands for spreading the work. There is nothing more depressing to a parent who seeks systemic change than to walk into a PTA meeting month after month to see the same 10 or 15 parents sitting in a 500-seat auditorium, with a box of stale donuts, discussing issues that affect their own kids but don’t even begin to nibble around the edges of the real structural problems facing the education system as a whole. There are numerous ways to draw more parents. Make people responsible for recruiting their friends. Bring in meaningful speakers to talk about issues of education and parenting. Is there club or class that performs: music? dance? sports? drama? Let the kids give a presentation. The goal is to make the meetings fun and meaningful. Every meeting should include a discussion of the group’s goals, not just the goals within the school itself but also looking to the big picture. These meetings are an opportunity to forge a consensus among a growing group.
Once you have an auditorium filled with parents, you can use that organizational muscle to hold not only your school officials but also your elected officials accountable. Why does Albany refuse to fund New York City schools at the level mandated by the courts? When you invite your state legislators to speak to your parents on issues such as this, they won’t be too impressed with 12 parents and a box of donuts. But if you have an auditorium packed with well-informed parents, kids, activities and reporters from the local press, they will be more willing to pay attention to your concerns.
Unfortunately, in my experience with various schools around District 20 as a member of the Community Education Council, I have found the Betty Crocker paradigm of PTA leadership firmly entrenched across the district. As parents, we have a choice: uphold the status quo and its record of doing the least possible for the education of our children, or organize for social change and bring pressure to bear on the elected officials whose job it is to fund the schools. Organizing for change is not spelled out in the DoE’s program for the PTA, and it makes people uncomfortable, but that’s a good thing. Nobody should be comfortable with a system of public educations that fails to fund our schools fairly and outsources and privatizes key aspects of the curriculum. We have the power as parents and as voters. Let’s use it.
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