When the New Jersey Education Association recently urged its members to rally the heads of the parent-teacher groups in opposition to a proposed voucher bill, it was implementing a strategy that has worked for teachers unions for the last 40 years. But what’s notable is that PTAs have long aligned themselves with organized attempts to defeat legislation that arguably empowers parents.
“It’s not your members who need to contact Assembly people, it’s the parents in your district who need to put pressure on them,” read a memo signed by NJEA representative Joe Coppola to members, as first reported in the Bergen Record. “Parents need to get angry and take action!”
Organizationally, PTA groups don’t need much convincing. Their alliance with the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers goes back decades, and AFT president Albert Shanker used that to advance his ambitions in 1978. At that time, U.S. Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Bob Packwood were leading an attempt to award tax credits to families for private or parochial school tuition. If successful, Shanker warned that the proposal would spell “the beginning of the end for public education.”
But, as Shanker biographer Richard D. Kahlenberg noted in Tough Liberal, the AFT president was smart enough to make the PTA the driving force of the opposition. Thus was formed the National Coalition to Save Public Education, and National PTA president Grace C. Baisinger was installed as the coalition’s chairwoman. Despite the visibility of the PTA, “it was known that Al was the key power behind this,” said Eugenia Kemble, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute.
Today, the coalition exists as the National Coalition for Public Education, contending that “the real beneficiaries of ‘choice’ programs are private and religious schools.”
Over time, policy analysts and school choice advocates have weighed in on how that alliance and the policy positions it has produced are are often at odds with the “P” side of the PTA’s constituency.
Writing in the New York Times in 2001, Education Sector co-founder Thomas Toch observed that the PTA’s national leaders have “tended to defend public education’s performance rather than push for improvement, leading to the defection of many local parent groups,” further adding:
… it is also true, people on both sides of the issue say, that the organization is out of step with many parents’ demands for change in public education today, generally rejecting the contention that public schools are doing a poor job of educating many students. And critics charge that the organization has worked with groups representing public educators to slow the pace of change at both the state and federal levels.
The PTA has particularly strong ties to teacher unions. Charlotte Frass, chief Washington lobbyist for the American Federation of Teachers, said, “We often lobby together.” Ties are even close to the nation’s other leading teachers union, the National Education Association. One of the PTA’s three Washington lobbyists is married to an NEA lobbyist, and from the founding of the PTA’s Washington legislative office in 1978 through 1993, its lobbyists were housed in rent-reduced offices in the NEA’s headquarters a few block from the White House.
Three years later, Fordham Foundation president Chester E. Finn Jr. wrote:
… like so many other once-useful organizations (the League of Women Voters comes to mind, along with the American Civil Liberties Union), it’s been politicized, ideologized, bureaucratized and, at least in the PTA’s case, has become part of the public-education establishment, more interested in propping up institutional claims and employee interests than advancing the interests of parents and kids. “All T and no P” is how I’ve come to describe the National PTA and its state affiliates.
Maybe these assessments come off as a little harsh in today’s environment, but the NJEA’s maneuver is a palpable reminder for how this alliance still functions. Whether school vouchers are good or bad education policy, they clearly provide options that parents don’t currently enjoy. But there remains little evidence that the Ps in most PTAs are wrestling with the contradiction.