Taking the Parent out of the National PTA:an exclusive interview with Charlene K. Haar

Published February 1, 2003

“PTA parents in general are concerned about what’s happening at their local schools, and the PTA leadership at the local schools deserves a great deal of praise: They do all of the work and raise all of the money that supports the state organization as well as the national organization. They get very little in return, except to see that their work is making a difference at their local schools.

When Charlene K. Haar made what she thought was a routine request to the National PTA, the reaction she received was so surprising it piqued the former public school teacher’s curiosity to learn more about the century-old Parent-Teacher Association.

Instead of a parent organization dedicated to the enhancement of the nation’s schools, Haar discovered a group dominated by teacher unions and little attuned to the interests of parents and their children. Her findings are detailed in the book, The Politics of the PTA (Transaction Publishers), published last fall.

Haar had been looking up information at the PTA headquarters in Chicago for a research project and asked for a copy of the PTA’s nonprofit tax return, Form 990. She was told it would be sent to her, but what she also received was an accusatory letter from a PTA finance official, who suggested her intentions for asking questions and visiting the headquarters were suspicious, and that she was misrepresenting herself.

“If I hadn’t received that letter, I would have completed my study of the PTA as a 10- or 12-page article for Capital Research Center, and that would have been it,” said Haar. “But because I received this very curious letter, I decided there must be something they were hiding, that they didn’t want their members to find out about, and that they didn’t want to have publicized. That encouraged me to go ahead with a larger study that ended up in The Politics of the PTA.”

Haar is an educational consultant specializing in teacher/parent relations and local, state, and federal education policy. She is president of the Washington, DC-based Education Policy Institute and also a research associate with the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University. She is coauthor of The NEA and AFT: Teacher Unions in Power and Politics, and author or coauthor of numerous articles on PTA issues and on the teacher unions.

A native of South Dakota and a product of that state’s public schools, Haar received a B.A. in French from the University of South Dakota and an M.A. in Gifted Education from Augustana College, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She taught French, English, and American Government for 11 years, most recently at Madison High School, Madison, South Dakota. An active participant in local and state politics in South Dakota, she was the state’s 1992 Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. Haar recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How did you become involved with education policy and education reform?

Haar: I was a high school teacher in Madison, South Dakota, and during that time I was in charge of developing the gifted student program. Since each student required an IEP, an Individual Education Plan, this gave me an opportunity to work very closely with the parents. I met individually with them and learned the concerns they had about education issues. From that, I learned more about parent involvement in school issues than I’d ever learned in my contact with parents in a regular classroom setting.

Then, in 1993, I had a career change. I had hoped to start a national organization for parents but instead I was invited to coauthor a book with Dr. Myron Lieberman and Dr. Leo Troy, called The NEA and AFT: Teachers Unions in Power and Politics, which came out in 1994. It was during this period that I did some research on the National PTA for the Capital Research Center and, as part of that study, requested a copy of the PTA’s nonprofit tax return. In response, I received a letter that contained very curious and untrue allegations about my position and research.

At the time, I didn’t know very much about the PTA. In our high school in South Dakota, there was no separate organization that included all the parents. They were split up into several groups, such as the band boosters, the supporters for the athletic programs, and the advocates for the debate program. In our elementary schools, too, the parent organizations were independent and not affiliated with the PTA.

Clowes: So your idea of forming a national parent organization didn’t grow out of a negative experience with the PTA?

Haar: Correct. It was because I was concerned the parents I was working with didn’t have access to legislative programs, either at the state level or the federal level. When I was teaching, I regularly attended the school board meetings, and I listened to the problems the school board was having with federal and state mandates. Parents didn’t have access to this kind of information. They also didn’t have access to information about new studies in education. There were other big voids, big pockets of non-information or misinformation for parents. That was where I thought I could help parents.

Although I didn’t start a national parent group, a Massachusetts entrepreneur named Tim Sullivan has developed PTO Today, an organization to bring independent parent-teacher organizations together to share what works.

Clowes: In your book, you describe how the National PTA has become more of a political organization and made it very difficult for parents to have any influence over PTA policies. Were you surprised to find the PTA was more involved in politics than supporting parents?

Haar: I most certainly was. In fact, I think one of the really important values of the book is that I document how those changes occurred in the PTA, often using the original PTA documents to make my case. Providing this kind of detail helps parents who are interested in dis-affiliating with the PTA because they often have a difficult time convincing others of the necessity for such action, without proof of PTA’s positions.

The PTA has changed the process by which parents become involved in policy-making positions in the organization. This process now requires a tremendous commitment of time. This is a big negative for most parents, who are busy with full-time jobs and rearing children, and, consequently, it’s mostly grandmothers who are in charge of the national organization. That presents another problem, because grandmothers are several years removed from the problems and attitudes that are present in schools today.

Because positions taken by the National PTA extend to the state and local PTA organizations, individuals who disagree with the positions taken at the national level are often criticized openly for merely questioning the PTA position. Candid discussions are discouraged, and criticisms and disagreements are not welcome in the PTA.

To minimize the impact of contentious issues, policy decisions are made by the National PTA board. After the National PTA promoted a controversial video (It’s Elementary) that celebrates homosexuality in discussions with elementary students, including kindergartners, local PTA affiliates criticized the National PTA’s promotion of the video. Rather than have an open discussion by convention delegates on this controversial issue, the PTA board expanded its position statement in 2001 to include respect for “sexual orientation.”

Because very few parents are familiar with the positions of the National PTA, their dues often unwittingly pay for promotion of policies that are or would be opposed by parents who know about them.

There is very strong pressure, even at the national convention, not to challenge decisions or proposals made by the board. For instance, at the last PTA convention, the board allocated almost $3 million of its very limited budget for its public relations campaign. Not a single representative at the convention asked what results had occurred from spending similar amounts for the two previous years.

PTA parents in general are concerned about what’s happening at their local schools, and the PTA leadership at the local schools deserves a great deal of praise: They do all of the work and raise all of the money that supports the state organization as well as the national organization. They get very little in return, except to see that their work is making a difference at their local schools.

Clowes: Could you talk about the links between the PTA and the National Education Association?

Haar: That development is really very interesting. We need to go back to 1920, when the PTA headquarters was actually in the NEA building in Washington, DC. At that time, there were very few teachers in the NEA because it was a professional organization run by school administrators. It was completely different from the union model they now have. But within the NEA in 1920 there was a department just for the PTA.

In the local school systems at that time–which numbered more than 100,000–the PTA acted like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Every superintendent wanted that seal of approval on his school and this encouraged the establishment of the PTAs. By the 1960s, the vast majority of schools in the country had PTA organizations.

The 1960s was also when the NEA decided to transform itself into a teacher union like its rival, the American Federation of Teachers. It was a time of great turmoil in the school systems, with many, many strikes for various and sundry reasons, with parents unsure of whether to side with the school administrators or the teachers.

Although the PTA had moved out of the NEA headquarters in 1953, there was still a very close relationship between them. Many teachers were leaders in the PTA, just as they are today. The NEA let it be known that if PTAs continued to support the school board during teacher strikes, the NEA would pull its teachers out and start a competing organization. The PTA was afraid of losing members, and so, in 1968, the PTA Board of Directors–not the membership–set a policy declaring that, in teacher strikes, the PTA would not oppose the teachers and the teachers’ union. This eliminated parental support for the administration.

Up to that point in time, administrators had made the majority of the decisions in dealing with school functions. But when the teacher union came in, union contracts affected not only the terms and conditions of the teachers but also other school operations parents were interested in, such as teacher assignments. Parents still are interested in these other issues, but local PTAs can no longer provide any support to parents who wish to challenge union positions. In fact, a few years ago at the NEA convention, NEA President Keith Geiger reminded the PTA that its locals were bound by PTA policy not to challenge the teacher union positions in collective bargaining.

Clowes: It’s like the old Soviet Union “reminding” one of its satellites not to challenge Moscow’s decisions.

Haar: This analogy is a terrible thing, but it is a valid one. Furthermore, despite the PTA’s claims that it represents all parents, it’s absolutely not true. The PTA certainly doesn’t represent parents on the issues that are of most concern to parents. For instance, if we just talk about the restrictions of the union contract, parents now are not able to meet with teachers before or after the school day unless the union contract requires teachers to participate in such meetings.

Another critical issue for parents is teacher assignments. But even the school administration doesn’t control those assignments because the union contracts say transfers shall be based strictly on teacher seniority. The result is that some of the worst teachers get shuttled to the neediest schools. Even if PTA members want changes in the contracts, they are not allowed to take sides in collective bargaining. While you might think a parent organization would express its views on issues like these, local PTAs are not allowed to do so by National PTA policy.

Clowes: The PTA doesn’t appear to be supportive of parent interests with regard to school choice, either.

Haar: That’s right. The PTA came out strongly against a private school tax credit bill that was proposed in the U.S. Congress in 1977. They’re very much opposed to vouchers and tax credits of any kind, and even private schooling itself. They’re not keen on home schooling, either, and that is the ultimate in parental involvement. With charter schools, the PTA wants the same or more oversight as the regular public school system. In fact, they have adopted the same negative position about charter schools as the NEA.

The links between the NEA and the PTA are becoming more overt. For instance, at the last National PTA convention, the NEA hosted a reception for PTA delegates at which NEA President Bob Chase promoted a book he had written for parents. On the back cover of the book was an endorsement from Shirley Igo, president of the PTA.

Clowes: Another point you bring up in your book is the fact that the PTA does quite a bit of lobbying, even though it’s a 501(c)3 organization.

Haar: The PTA, even as a nonprofit organization, admits it takes positions on legislative issues. It does not endorse candidates for office, it does not have a PAC, but it does lobby. It has a 501(c)3(h) designation, which allows it to spend up to a certain percentage of its funds for lobbying. They have a lobbying office here in Washington, DC and anywhere between five and seven paid lobbyists.

One of the major differences between being a PTA and a PTO is that PTOs–the independent parent organizations–do not lobby. In fact, why should parents pay for lobbyists who don’t represent their interests? When parents are paying dues to lobbyists who actually are working against some of the traditional values of parents in the PTA, then I think it’s really deception. There are plenty of other organizations to represent political interests.

Clowes: What suggestions do you have for parents?

Haar: This is what I tell parents who call me and email me: If, after you read The Politics of the PTA you still feel you’re getting your money’s worth from paying your dues to support your local, state, and National PTA organizations, then stay with them. But, if you don’t, then you should make a change. You can do that by going to PTOToday.com and visiting with others who have started independent parent organizations at their schools.

If you’re already a member of the PTA, and you don’t believe what they’re doing is in your best interest, then I suggest you disaffiliate from the PTA. There are ways to do that, and one of the best starting points is to read The Politics of the PTA, because I do have suggestions there. Another way is to go to our Web site at www.educationpolicy.org, where I have placed general directions. Or, better yet, go to PTOToday.com and enjoy visiting with others who have disaffiliated from the PTA and started independent parent-teacher organizations.

Clowes: Is the PTA losing members?

Haar: Yes. The PTA had more than 12 million members in 1965, and there has been a steady drop almost every year since then, to just 6.2 million last year. With more than 53 million K-12 students in our schools, it’s very clear the PTA’s claim that it represents all students and all parents is a flagrant exaggeration. The fact that National PTA dues are only $1.75 underscores what little appeal it has to most parents, especially minority parents.