K-12 schools are in the biggest crisis in memory. Some have not been fully open in a year, despite evidence that schools do not increase the rate of coronavirus in a community. Women have had to leave the workforce to watch their children. Academic achievement is cratering. Some impoverished students have simply dropped off the grid. Meanwhile, magnet schools have taken to deliberately lowering academic standards in the name of social justice.
Everyone is talking about it — except, it seems, the Parent Teacher Association. The PTA has been essentially absent from the public debate on reopening schools (though it does not hesitate to make its thoughts on “Furniture Tip-Over Prevention” known). And in some cases, as with schools’ embrace of divisive racial rhetoric that has alienated parents and led to situations such as the overhaul of America’s highest-scoring math school because too many Asians were succeeding, it has contributed to the discord.
A Daily Wire review lends insight into how one of the most prominent advocacy groups in the country, which claims to speak on behalf of broad segments of America, has taken a backseat role in the fight for a basic priority — to reopen schools — while taking more forceful positions for partisan causes that alienate much of its membership.
From March 9 to 11, the National PTA held its annual Legislative Conference, and the agenda focused not on getting kids back into school, but on a series of liberal political priorities, some wholly unrelated to education – including using the organization to subject parents to ideological training.
At 3:15 p.m. on the first day, virtual conference-goers took part in “Empowering Parents to Mitigate the Adverse Impacts of Climate Change.” At 5:15, they attended a session on “Supportive and Inclusive Practices,” where they heard about “practices that ensure equity for every student, are grounded in social justice and support the whole child and every family.”
At 6:10, they continued on to “Courageous Conversations in Diversity and Inclusion,” in which “attendees will analyze the critical role of PTA in developing diversity initiatives in your school buildings, in PTA units and in communities.”
In its own words, in 2020 — a year defined, for millions of parents, by many teachers’ refusal to return to school with a series of ever-shifting demands — the PTA “virtually shower[ed] teachers with appreciation for the pivotal role they play in our children’s lives, especially during a pandemic.”
Dr. Elena Fishbein, an education activist who is president of a parents’ group called No Left Turn in Education, said the PTA’s conspicuous absence as children’s basic right to an education fell victim to a power struggle between teachers unions and policymakers merely highlighted a more longstanding problem.
The PTA, she said, has long diverted parents, as an organizing force, into roles as mere cheerleaders for teachers and school administrators, instead of watchdogs and advocates for their children.
“You know what PTA usually does. They sell wrapping paper and raise money for teachers,” she told The Daily Wire. “Being involved in education is not selling wrapping paper to help teachers. That’s what the role of parents has been reduced to by the PTA. Parents would be asking tough questions, because there are a lot of problems in schools. Yet the supposed parents’ association is sitting there planning parties?”
Does PTA represent parents?
The PTA’s statements on school reopening have been largely devoid of content, except to say that schools should get more money — a teachers’ union priority. In June 2020, it said it “calls for any decision to reopen schools to involve parents, families, students, educators, school employees, public health experts, health practitioners and community members… It also calls on federal and state governments to provide the funding necessary to ensure that schools have the resources they need.”
In February 2021, it said, “Reopening schools for in-person learning is vital to ensure the continuity of education for every child, particularly those who do not have adequate access to technology. However, health and safety must continue to be the utmost priority.” It added, “More resources continue to be needed to help pay for the costs for schools to reopen safely and successfully.”
Many private and charter schools were open for much of the 2020-21 schoolyear without significant issue, while many traditional public schools remained closed. But there is little evidence of the PTA asking why that was. Instead, it has pushed policies ensuring that only the wealthy can afford to go to such schools.
According to its policy position paper, the PTA supports public charter schools only if they “do not exceed and do not divert funding from non-charter public schools” – seemingly wanting existing schools to receive funding for services they are not performing.
It “strongly opposes” vouchers that would allow some families to chose to use a portion of the taxpayer funds currently earmarked for their child to pay for private school tuition. One of its top priorities for 2021 is “taking steps to eliminate funding for the D.C. voucher program” that provides that option for some low-income residents.
As a group speaking on behalf of “parents,” the PTA’s lobbying efforts carry considerable sway with Congress. But a 2020 survey found that more than three-quarters of parents support school vouchers.
That is not the only instance of the PTA seemingly functioning as a parents’ group that takes positions opposite those of the majority of parents.
In 2017, it partnered with GLSEN (formerly the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) to write a “friend of the court” brief in the U.S. Supreme Court case G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board in support of allowing transgender students to use school bathrooms of the sex with which they identify. In 2016, a poll found that fewer than a third of parents of school children wanted that, suggesting that the PTA’s stance defied a strong majority of its members, including people of all political persuasions who worried about boys in locker rooms and bathrooms with their daughters.
More recently, the PTA has become a major proponent of racial rhetoric that has both conservative and liberal parents up in arms about its potential psychological effects on children. The National PTA employs five “Equity Fellows.” Frances Frost, a board member, is known primarily for her racial activism.
It advocates for “culturally responsive teaching,” and calls for schools to “develop critical consciousness by recognizing racism, classism, and other issues in the world and developing a student’s awareness to openly address these situations.”
It backed regulations that would establish implied racial quotas for the discipline of students who are deemed special ed. In the past, school districts have met these mandates by turning a blind eye to severe instances of violence in schools, in some cases leading to tragedy.
The PTA’s priorities sound less like something one might hear on the sidelines of a soccer game and more like a speech by professional progressive activists.
“Our education system must be firmly centered in the belief that equity in education is not just a vision or a goal, but rather a necessity,” its December 2020 letter to the Biden transition team said. “National PTA recently adopted two positions statements, ‘Say Their Names, Addressing Institutional or Systemic Racism’ and ‘Inclusive Curricula in K-12 Education’ which speak to PTAs [sic] commitment around the crucial work of [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion],” it wrote.
Fishbein said that this language mirrors the words of school system bureaucrats, and that it is hard to imagine that a large portion of parents asked the PTA to do such things. In that respect, it is no different than the wrapping paper sales, she said.
“Think about the activities they’re engaged in: None of the events are really what the parents want to do, it’s what the school wants them to do,” she said.
If 2020’s struggles over whether schools should be open or not made one thing clear, it’s that two constituents of the PTA — parents and teachers — sometimes have competing interests.
“What does it mean to have a parent-teacher association? What in that relationship says we’re going to advocate for parents? Its totally diluted. It has nothing to do with the teaching or what goes on with the kids,” Fishbein said.
There are actually three competing interests in the education world: parents, teachers, and school administrators. It is the school administrators, who collectively control more than $700 billion a year, with whom the teachers’ unions often do battle. Perhaps the PTA’s role is to represent parents and teachers in their shared priorities against administrators.
But that’s not the case, either: The PTA often appears to operate as an adjunct of schools, rather than an independent check on them, Fishbein said. National board member Dr. Renée LaHuffman-Jackson is a school administrator, and board members Dr. Sylvia Ramirez Reyna and Dr. Emma Violand-Sánchez are former administrators.
While the PTA may represent no discrete interest group in the education policy world, many PTA staff and board members have one thing in common: politics. Personal campaign contributions from members of the PTA headquarters’ full-time staff have gone exclusively to Democrats in recent years, according to OpenSecrets.org.
National PTA’s executive director is Nathan Monell, who is paid $347,000. His biography describes his “daily motivation” as creating “equity” for all children. Anna King, a national board member who until earlier this year was its president, is a former activist with Moms Demand Action, a Michael Bloomberg-funded political group whose affiliate, Everytown for Gun Safety, has spent tens of millions of dollars electing Democrats.
A spokesperson did not make Monell or its new president, Leslie Boggs — who shares a similar passion for the gun issue — available for an interview for this story.
The PTA, despite representing a broad membership with diverse views, has not hesitated to wade into contentious partisan battles that are only peripherally related to schools, supporting restrictions on firearms that would apply to all Americans, including a waiting period and a ban on “military-style semi-automatic assault weapons.”
The organization’s political preferences seem to extend to its preferred presidential appointments. It opposed the nomination of Betsy DeVos to be President Trump’s secretary of education. By contrast, its December 3 letter to the Biden transition team had a different tone.
“We look forward to working with the Department of Education and the Biden Administration to fully realize the power of” — it said — “the parent voice.”
This is the second in a three-part series on the Parent Teacher Association.
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