The PTA, the NEA, and Education

by Charlene K. Haar*

Teachers' unions, federal agencies, special interest groups -- when we talk about the power structure of our education system, we sometimes forget to include parents. At the National PTA, we are committed to putting parents back into the educational power equation, and we've been taking some steps to do so.1 -- Grace Baisinger, President, National Congress of Parents and Teachers, 1979

*Charlene K. Haar granted permission to reproduce this part (Chapter 5) of her recently published book, titled, The Politics of the PTA (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2002), in the Review.

I. IntroductionAs an adjunct of the public schools since the 1920s, the National PTA adopted an agenda shaped by school administrators at the local level and by the NEA at the federal level. This framework prevailed until the 1960s, when unionization of the NEA led to the expulsion of administrators from the association. Changes in the NEA resulted in basic changes in the PTA that have continued to this day, but have not been widely recognized. Although the formal relationship between the two organizations has remained constant, virtually every aspect of the PTA has been and is deeply affected by the unionization of the NEA.

II. PTA/NEA Relationships: Phase IIn 1919, the steadfast financial support for the National Congress provided by Phoebe Apperson Hearst ended with her death. Without her support, the National Congress could not raise enough money to keep the thirty-two-room mansion on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. as a permanent headquarters. The building, which had been used as a service club for enlisted men during World War I, was sold in the summer of 1920. After the sale, the National Congress of Parent-Teacher Associations, already closely allied with the NEA, moved its offices into the NEA's Washington headquarters. Despite membership of over 180,000, the executive secretary was the only employee of the National Congress.

As more Americans moved away from farms to towns and cities, secondary-school enrollment rose from 1,115,000 in 1910 to 2,500,000 in 1920, and to 4,812,000 in 1930.2 These increases resulted jointly from immigration, increases in the native population, the enactment of compulsory education laws, and more vigorous enforcement of such laws. The increases also resulted in a major policy dilemma. During the early 1900s, high schools were primarily college preparatory institutions. As their enrollments increased, high schools were enrolling increasing numbers of students who did not plan to enroll in college and were not interested in a college preparatory curriculum. To resolve the dilemmas over the objectives of secondary education, the National Congress accepted the NEA's lead.

The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education

The NEA was founded in 1857 as a national organization of college presidents and school superintendents, almost all of whom were men. Women teachers were not allowed to become NEA members until 1866. Unlike the National Congress, the early NEA had only three appointed committees; their tasks were to recommend a course of study for high schools, prepare an ideal program for the education of youth, and provide annual reports of staff qualifications and compensation, student enrollment, and library resources.3 By the 1890s, the NEA was creating a national agenda via its issuance of reports, through which the NEA impacted public opinion on educational issues.

In 1918, in response to the tremendous increases in secondary-school attendance, an NEA committee issued a report which contrasted sharply with an 1893 study that had recommended that all secondary students study English, foreign languages, mathematics, history, and science. That study, chaired by Harvard University President Charles Eliot, was promptly criticized for allegedly assuming that secondary schools should be primarily college preparatory institutions. In contrast, the new report, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, recommended a much more diversified curriculum emphasizing the importance of educating "the whole student," thus departing from the previous emphasis on academics.4 According to Cardinal Principles, the goals of U.S. education should be health and safety; worthy home membership; mastery of the tools, technique, and spirit of learning; citizenship and world goodwill; vocational and economic effectiveness; wise use of leisure; and ethical character. This NEA report was destined to become one of the most influential statements on education in American history.

The National Congress, referred to as the PTA after 1924, formally adopted the NEA's Cardinal Principles in 1927 to "give suggestions for legislative effort and programs of work to state PTA branches and local associations."5 Adopting Cardinal Principles did not mean that the National PTA would cut back on its involvement in noneducational programs; for that matter, Cardinal Principles was never confined to secondary education, or even to educational issues concerning kindergarten through twelfth grade.

There is no doubt that Cardinal Principles was very influential; the problem lies in assessing the influence of the various principles it advocated. Long before the PTA had officially adopted Cardinal Principles, it had supported activities and programs that embodied the principles. Cardinal Principles legitimized the goals that the PTA had previously encouraged local school districts to adopt.

Elsewhere, however, Cardinal Principles played a more substantive role, especially as the goals of secondary education became more controversial in the 1920s and thereafter. As secondary-school enrollments increased to unprecedented levels, new issues emerged. Was it fair for public schools to provide college preparatory programs for a small minority of students while ignoring the needs of the large majority of students who did not plan to seek a college education after high school graduation? Should lower-income families be required to subsidize higher education for students from higher-income groups? Cardinal Principles was instrumental in raising such issues, as well as in providing a respected authority for anyone who already shared the point of view it expressed.

Today, conservatives criticize the public schools for offering a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all curriculum. Actually, it was the public school establishment that emphasized meeting "the needs and interests" of students in the 1920s, and it was this establishment that was responsible for breaking away from the rigid secondary-school curricula that had prevailed in the early 1900s. Today, the main issue is still with us; what subjects, if any, should all students be required to study in order to preserve prosperity and cohesiveness in a highly diverse society? Unfortunately, there is no consensus on the answer to this question, and none appears to be in sight.

On other curriculum issues, also, the PTA was guided by Cardinal Principles. For example, Cardinal Principles asserted that "[t]he purpose of democracy is so to organize society that each member may develop his personality primarily through activities designed for the well-being of fellow members and of society as a whole."6 The NEA/PTA concept of citizenship reflected this fuzzy collectivism, in which citizenship as social cooperation and working for the public good predominated, instead of citizenship as political rights and individual responsibilities.

Legislation versus Parental Concerns

Although it turned its education policy over to the guidance of professionals in the NEA, the PTA nevertheless continued its standing committee on education. However, the committee now focused its attention on issues of concern primarily to career teachers, such as teacher salaries, retirement and tenure policies, the status of teaching as a profession, and (as before) federal aid for education. Obviously, none of these items was very helpful to parents interested in improving the education of their own children, but all of these issues deeply concerned the NEA.

A report at the 1926 PTA convention reflects the NEA's strong influence on the PTA. The National PTA vice president, charged with promoting "school education," reported that "[t]he Committee on School Education receiving through its chairman all of the educational forces of the N.E.A. has concentrated on the new Education Bill."7 As an illustration, the education chairman reported that from April 1925 to April 1926, the PTA had sent out 18,427 leaflets supporting the establishment of a federal department of education. Coordination of these activities between the PTA and the NEA was facilitated by the fact that Charl Ormond Williams, the National PTA vice president, was also the director of field service for the NEA. Several times during the year, Williams requested that PTA leaders and members write to their congressmen urging the passage of the bill. The education chairman readily acknowledged that "the aim of the school education committee is really closely related to the work of the PTA's committee on legislation."8

Four other areas of education were included in the PTA's agenda; humane education, illiteracy, music, and art. The PTA's humane education committee fostered benevolent attitudes toward pets and other animals. The PTA suggested that its members write articles for magazines on topics such as "Children's Attitude Toward Their Pets." The PTA also endorsed other efforts to achieve a better world for pets, including education against rodeo shows, sponsorship of poster contests, and a general observance of Be-Kind-to-Animals Week.

Alarmed over the fact that literacy rates in Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland greatly exceeded that of the United States, the National PTA's chairman of the illiteracy committee took on the task of raising "Uncle Sam from the tenth place in the scale of literate and enlightened nations."9 Following up on the NEA's Adult Education Conference, PTA officials worked with state superintendents and state and local PTA presidents to recruit teachers for evening classes for adult illiterates in rural school districts. When possible, the PTA cooperated with other organizations to secure home teachers to teach English to foreign-born women. Support was enlisted from the American Legion, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Colonial Dames. The PTA set a goal of eliminating adult illiteracy before the 1930 census, declaring it shameful that the "cross mark is still being written on court records, marriage licenses, deeds, etc."10

The PTA also encouraged the study of music and art in all schools. Each local PTA was urged to provide music on loan, programs on the significance of music, and even music lessons and music appreciation classes for adults. Many local affiliates sponsored a Mother's Musicale preceding Mother's Day. Local PTAs were also encouraged to survey "art conditions in the home, schools, evening art schools, libraries, museums, [and] city and community stores." Clearly, at that time, the PTA's education agenda was much less political than the NEA's, which emphasized the enactment of federal legislation, especially on funding for education.

Through the years, the National PTA and the NEA shared speakers, general programs, and award programs. As noted in a history of the PTA, "This cooperation with the National Education Association is carried down from the national to the state, district, and local levels.... [F]or example, the state president of the parent-teacher organization is made an ex officio member of the state education association. Similar relationships are maintained all down the line."11 State teachers' association affiliates sometimes granted the PTA free pages in their monthly magazines.12 In another example of cooperative relations, the state education associations often paid the expenses of National PTA officers who visited the state.

The PTA and School Administrators

At the local level, the support of school administrators was critical to both the NEA and the PTA. It was precisely because school administrators encouraged membership in the PTA and the NEA that both organizations expanded as they did. For example, in 1915, when the Cook County superintendent announced at the Illinois Teachers' Institute that his office "desires and will cooperate in the establishment of a Parent-Teacher association in every county school, and urges immediate affiliation with the Illinois Congress of Mothers and Parent-Teacher Associations," the teachers acted accordingly.13 In 1933, PTA leaders "held regular office hours in the [McLean County, Illinois] superintendent's office on Saturday afternoons to meet with the rural teachers."14 In certain areas, the NEA sought to require an effective PTA as a condition of school accreditation by the appropriate regional accrediting agencies, which served as a sort of "Good Housekeeping seal of approval" among educators.

The close relationship between the PTA and the NEA turned out to be invaluable after the stock market crash of 1929 resulted in severe financial problems for schools. As one of the most expensive government programs, schools were among the first public services to be cut, and the cuts were sometimes drastic. Supervisors were dismissed, the number of teachers and their salaries were reduced while class size increased, and extracurricular activities were often eliminated. Teachers in many systems went unpaid for months or were "paid in scrip or tax warrants which could be cashed only at a considerable discount."15 As the collection of school taxes dropped drastically, the NEA appointed a Commission on the Emergency in Education to help unpaid teachers and keep schools open. In addition, the commission urged federal support to assist school systems that depended heavily on local property taxes that were often in default during the Depression years.

The National PTA supported these efforts in various ways. It flooded lawmakers' desks with letters that insisted that public education must be adequately maintained despite decreased tax revenues. Occasionally, where schools were temporarily closed, local PTAs sponsored educational programs for children. Sometimes state and local PTAs joined with teacher organizations in mass meetings to promote special measures to help school districts in dire straits. As unpaid and underpaid teachers resigned from their school districts, the National PTA urged its members who were former teachers to help alleviate the teacher shortage. In some school districts, the PTAs coordinated the emergency programs intended to ameliorate the crisis in school revenues.

Meanwhile, the PTA itself experienced the debilitating effects of the Depression. From 1932 to 1934, membership in the National PTA decreased sharply, and bank failures and widespread unemployment forced many PTAs to disband. State PTAs everywhere were forced to curtail their activities, merge committees, and reduce committee expenses.16 Meetings were held less frequently, and some state conventions were suspended. Despite these organizational setbacks, however, the PTA continued its legislative efforts to increase state aid to public schools and raise teacher salaries. Desperation was evident in a National PTA resolution that called for an additional year of high school to ease the unemployment crisis.

After almost a decade of troublesome fluctuations, unemployment dropped appreciably in 1939 and was minimal, as the United States became "an arsenal of democracy" while fighting World War II. After the war, the PTA's new Four-Point Program resolved to strengthen school curricula, improve the health of the nation's children, promote world understanding through the United Nations, and expand lifelong education for parents. In 1946, the PTA also supported an NEA initiative relating to teacher training and certification. Efforts to attract more men to the profession of teaching were also a high PTA/NEA priority in the 1950s, but their joint efforts along this line did not have any appreciable effect on the gender composition of the teaching force, which remained almost 80 percent female.17

School consolidation was another PTA objective that originated with the NEA. Between 1940 and 1957, the number of school districts was reduced from 120,000 to 55,000.18 Consolidation eventually encountered widespread opposition, but before the trend ran its course, the number of school districts had been reduced to approximately 15,000. Proponents of consolidation had argued that the result would be more effective use of public funds, improved education for millions of children, and more equitable distribution of the tax base to support poorer districts. In particular, the California PTA cited its effort to reduce the number of school districts in California as among its significant activities. The opponents of consolidation contended that it would weaken the ties between parents and schools, and that taxpayers would be more reluctant to pay for schools that they could not observe. Of course, the opponents of consolidation were sometimes motivated by more practical considerations, such as having to travel farther to school or losing control over patronage.

From 1943 to 1957, the NEA and the PTA supported federal legislation that would have provided federal aid for the education of illiterates, Americanization programs for immigrants, the partial payment of teachers' salaries, and the establishment of a federal department of education. During this period, none of these proposals was enacted.

The Federal Government and the Curriculum

All of the PTA/NEA objectives were shattered by an event that took place far from the United States--or, for that matter, from any place on earth. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I--the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth. As Americans awakened to second place in the space race, schools were subjected to a barrage of criticism from all sides. Distinguished scholars such as James Bryant Conant, a former president of Harvard University, charged that state departments of education were little more than the "willing tools" of the interests of the state NEA affiliates.19 President Dwight D. Eisenhower urged PTAs to scrutinize school programs. Military officers like Vice Admiral Hyman Rickover argued that professional educators were bringing America to its knees before a superior Russian educational system.20 To remedy the deficiencies in science, mathematics, foreign languages, and vocational guidance, the federal government passed the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (NDEA)--the first major step by the federal government to directly influence the curricula in America's local schools. Although the PTA and the NEA had long supported increased federal funding for education, the NEA initially opposed the passage of the NDEA because the funds it granted were earmarked for mathematics, science, and other defense-related curricula, but could not be used for teacher salaries or buildings. Subsequently, however, both the PTA and the NEA supported the NDEA.

The NDEA was just the beginning. In the five years between 1962 and 1967, Congress passed almost thirty laws that pumped vast amounts of federal support into public education. Improving occupational training and retraining the nation's labor force and jobless illiterates were targeted goals of the Manpower Development and Training Act (1962). The Vocational Education Act (1963) enlarged high school and post-high school vocational education programs. The Economic Opportunity Act (1964) was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's declaration of "war on poverty." Among various separate programs, it authorized youth and adult work-training programs for the poor, and a domestic peace corps known as VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). The Higher Education Act of 1965 authorized a student-loan program. Public Law 89-10, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, also signed by President Johnson, provided $1.2 billion for public elementary and high schools during the first year of enactment. The funds were (and still are) distributed to the states based on the numbers of children in low-income families, but the efficacy of the legislation has been mired in controversy.

III. PTA/NEA Relationships: Phase IIThe PTA's relationship with the NEA can best be described as a partnership with two distinct phases. In the first phase, dating from the early 1900s, the NEA was controlled by school superintendents. Because school boards were supposed to be nonpartisan agencies, they typically lacked the means of generating political support for their programs. For this reason, school boards and superintendents (who were essentially appointees of nonpartisan elected school boards) sought PTA support to legitimize their programs and actions.

With nearly twelve million members in 1965, the PTA was more than ten times larger than the combined memberships of the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Despite its impressive membership, however, James D. Koerner, editor-in-chief of the Education Development Center in Newton, Massachusetts, criticized the PTA after his extensive study of public education in the 1960s:

[T]he American PTA is rarely anything more than a coffee-and-cookies organization based on vague good will and gullibility....

In a word, the local PTA does indeed have an influence on educational policy: by failing to be more than an administrative rubber stamp, it simply sustains the existing order....

Indeed the national PTA is a member in good standing of the 'Big Six,' a sort of behind-the-scenes association of three professional groups and three lay groups in education: The American Association of School Administrators, the National Education Association itself, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National School Boards Association, the National Association of State School Boards, and the National Congress of Parents and Teachers [the PTA]. Some people might look on the Big Six as something of an establishment creature, as an instrument for promoting establishment policy rather than as what it is alleged to be: an instrument for hard-headed debate and bargaining among broadly based interests about what American educational policies should be. However that may be, the three lay groups on the Big Six, the National PTA in particular, are no match for the three professional groups.21

Difficult as it may be to believe, Koerner's comments understated PTA subordination--hence, that of parents also--to the interests of the NEA. Although his prediction was accurate, at the time he could not have realized how the unionization of the NEA from 1964 to 1975 would affect NEA/PTA relations.

In the pre-unionization days, educational policy-making followed normal political procedures. Elected school boards met as legislative bodies to adopt, reject, or amend policies, including policies on the terms and conditions of employment for teachers. Teacher organizations and the PTA presented their points of view along with other interested parties. For better or for worse, school boards adopted the policies that they deemed appropriate. Insofar as the policies were budget related, they were largely settled until the next budget cycle. Granted, this is an oversimplified view, for present purposes, however, it sets forth the policy-making structure and procedures in the pre-unionization era accurately enough.

Despite Koerner's acerbic conclusions, local PTAs wielded considerable influence in middle- and upper-class school districts. Usually no other powerful interest groups were active in educational affairs. Local PTAs worked closely with school management, and for a good reason. Management had the power to run the district on a day-to-day basis. If a local PTA became interested in a particular program or activity, it had only to persuade the school administrators, who exercised broad discretion over the district budget and terms and conditions of teacher employment, to adopt the program or pursue the activity. Furthermore, although they lacked financial resources, local PTAs played a significant legitimizing role; their approval was valuable even though PTAs were not politically powerful in their own right. At the same time, the local teacher associations were largely social organizations. Except for presentations on school district budgets, the teacher associations welcomed new teachers at meetings and sponsored receptions for retiring teachers; typically, they were not a powerful force at the local level.

Unionization of the NEA

Teacher unionization drastically altered the political landscape. Many issues formerly resolved unilaterally by school boards after hearing anyone who wished to comment on them were resolved by collective bargaining with teacher unions--a process that excluded PTAs as well as others who wished to address the issues. Furthermore, teacher-union dues escalated to pay for union staff to negotiate contracts and process grievances. When negotiations were completed, usually for multiyear contracts, the union staff served as full-time political operatives, amply equipped with the facilities and campaign workers to be a formidable political force. Indeed, the emergence of teacher unions as a powerful political force at all levels is one of the most significant political developments in the United States since the 1960s.22

For practical purposes, the 1962 collective bargaining election in New York City marks the beginning of the collective bargaining movement in public education.23 After months of rancorous negotiations, including a one-day strike by twenty thousand New York City teachers, the New York City board of education and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT, an affiliate of the AFT and the AFL-CIO) negotiated a forty-page written agreement. In addition to a substantial pay raise for teaching and pay for extracurricular activities, the striking teachers demanded and received "free lunch periods, check-off for union dues, and one hundred and forty-seven other items dealing with work-place conditions."24

After losing the New York City representation election to the UFT, the NEA's executive director, William G. Carr, sounded the alarm. In an address to the 1962 NEA convention, Carr expressed an apocalyptic view about the threat of unionism: "This ... is the first time in which forces of significant scope and power are considering measures which could destroy the Association."25

Ironically, however, the NEA responded to the threat of unionism by becoming a union itself, albeit with nonunion terminology to maintain the pretense that it was not a union. For instance, the NEA embraced "professional negotiations," which turned out to be collective bargaining with a few cosmetic changes. Furthermore, the NEA contended that state educational boards, not state labor boards favored by the AFT, should administer the laws and regulations governing negotiations at the local level. Within a few years, however, all cosmetic differences of this sort between the NEA and the AFT positions disappeared, especially after the NEA realized that it could utilize collective bargaining to stifle the membership threat from the AFT. Both unions increased their membership dramatically under collective bargaining by enrolling teachers who had not previously been members of any union.

Prior to unionization, the NEA at the national level was not influential in political and legislative affairs because it could not provide much support for candidates for public office or for its preferred causes. Most local NEA affiliates had miniscule budgets and no full-time staff to provide grassroots support for the NEA's favored candidates and legislative agendas. These weaknesses disappeared when the NEA became a union; today, no other national organization has the power of the NEA to provide grassroots support for its candidates. According to a study by Myron Lieberman, the NEA's revenues at the local, state, and national levels exceeded $1 billion in 1996, and the association employs thousands of fulltime employees who are politically active at the state and local levels.26

Unionization changed the NEA in three fundamental ways. First, administrators left or were excluded from the association at all levels. Second, as a result of the departure of administrators, the NEA was not restrained by any management issues. Third, the NEA became a highly influential political force.

In theory, administrators represent both public and their own welfare interests. With the administrators no longer in the NEA, local NEA affiliates faced no internal opposition to bargaining for teacher benefits that would reduce the funds available for school maintenance, textbooks, or salaries for employees not covered by union contracts. While school management would normally consider these interests, collective bargaining endangers this outcome.

Under collective bargaining, school districts and unions bargain over "terms and conditions of employment." What this phrase means varies somewhat from state to state, but it usually covers salaries, benefits and other kinds of compensation, workday, length of the school year, transfers, workload, and a host of other matters that affect a district's resources and ability to initiate or change curricula or programs. Theoretically, school boards continue to be responsible for educational policy, but as people familiar with collective bargaining can attest, "terms and conditions of employment" and "educational policy" are frequently one and the same issue regarded from two different perspectives.

For example, suppose that parents in a local PTA want the school board to adopt a policy whereby the most experienced teachers (who are invariably also the highest-paid) are assigned to inner-city schools that are presently staffed largely by new teachers or substitutes. To parents, how to utilize teachers in order to maximize learning among the disadvantaged is an educational policy issue. The teacher unions, however, regard the issue in terms of transfers and assignments, that is, as "terms or conditions of employment," subject to negotiation between the union and the school district. In such negotiations, the unions almost invariably insist that transfers be voluntary and based upon seniority--the very same policies that created the problem to begin with. Even proposing the staffing change causes problems for the local PTA--teachers predictably support their union position and a potential boycott of the PTA may result in loss of dues and leadership. Furthermore, union members may retaliate against the parents who led the effort for the change in staffing policy.

In collective bargaining, third parties are rarely allowed to be present at the bargaining tables. As a result, there is no parental representation at the bargaining table, and parental political influence is miniscule compared to that of the teacher unions. Indeed, the unions are often directly responsible for the election of school board members who establish the board's bargaining position and vote to ratify or to reject a negotiated agreement.

Consequently, instead of presenting its views at open board meetings on an equal basis with the teacher organizations and other interested parties, the PTA can only express its views at contract ratification meetings, when the contract is, in effect, a fait accompli. Theoretically, the school district could keep the PTA informed on the progress of negotiations and receive its input on union positions, but the dynamics of bargaining preclude this outcome. Both union and management prefer not to have third parties involved precisely because their objections make it more difficult to reach agreement. Furthermore, if information about negotiations is provided to third parties, there is a danger of leaks and distortions that could upset negotiations. If the PTA were entitled to information about the progress of negotiations, other groups would clamor for the same privilege, and the requisite confidentiality would disappear altogether. If bargaining were to go on until the early morning hours, or around the clock, it would not be feasible to get parental input in the climactic stages of bargaining. Collective bargaining by teacher unions is not consistent with the open manner in which public policy should be made, but unfortunately, the legislatures that enacted the teacher bargaining statutes did not know or care about this inconsistency.

At the outset of the unionization of the NEA, local PTAs frequently found themselves in opposition to union demands: when this happened, relations at the local level deteriorated rapidly. The tensions between local PTAs and local NEA affiliates came to a head during teacher strikes. Parents were inconvenienced by teacher strikes and concerned about the impact of the strikes on their children's education. Also, they were concerned about the example being set, because most teacher strikes were (and still are) illegal. Pupil safety when school was not in session was another prevalent concern. Needless to say, the teacher unions characterized teacher strikes as a benefit to pupils. Unions urged parents to keep children at home for safety reasons, thereby putting more pressure on school boards to settle on union terms.

The PTA Opts for Neutrality

To help formulate its policy on teacher strikes and bargaining issues, the National PTA appointed a task force to recommend PTA policies on these matters. The task force elicited opinions from teacher unions, school boards, school administrators, and others. At its September 1968 meeting, after receiving the task force report, the national board of directors adopted policies on the role of the PTA in teacher strikes. The board first identified several "dilemmas" that teacher strikes and negotiations posed for local PTA members.

1. If the PTA provides volunteers to man the classrooms during a work stoppage, in the interest of protecting the immediate safety and welfare of children, it is branded as a strike breaker.

2. If the PTA does not take sides in issues being negotiated, it is accused of not being interested.

3. If it supports the positions of the board of education, which is the representative of the public in negotiations, the teacher members of the PTA have threatened to withdraw membership and boycott the local PTA activities. (emphasis added)27

To resolve these dilemmas, the PTA adopted guidelines covering the pre-strike period, the period during the strike, and the aftermath of the strike. Prior to the threat of a strike, PTA members are urged to keep the lines of communication open, and to seek action to remedy the causes of increased teacher complaints. If a strike occurs, PTA members may encourage action to protect children and to keep teachers involved in the PTA, but should not volunteer to help in ways that assist the administration in keeping the school open. When a strike is over, the PTA is encouraged to seek community support to ensure that implementation of the negotiated strike agreement continues. The PTA's guidelines emphasize that a local PTA should resist all activities that might be considered "taking sides" in a teacher strike: instead, it should encourage a public airing of the issues and let the school board and teacher union settle their dispute.28

Despite the fact that national policy called for neutrality, PTA/union conflict at the local and state levels continued to erupt. As additional states enacted teacher bargaining statutes, the conflicts emerged all over again at the legislative as well as the local level. The question of whether the PTA would represent parental or union interests surfaced in many ways: the experience in Ohio foreshadowed the eventual outcome nationally. According to an analysis of the conflict there:

[T]he state PTA and the powerful Ohio Education Association [OEA], an NEA affiliate, came to blows over three bills in the state legislature. Two of these involved teacher certification, training and dismissal; the third was a strong professional negotiations bill that included binding arbitration. The state PTA actively--and successfully--opposed several of OEA's legislative proposals in these areas, and that was when OEA apparently decided enough was enough. At its 1976 state convention, OEA adopted a resolution asking its 85,000 teachers to drop out of the PTA, to boycott all its activities, and to encourage parents to form new parent-teacher organizations that are not affiliated with the PTA. Of the 217,000 members who quit the PTA in 1976, more than 50,000 were from Ohio, where entire units disaffillated.29

Robert Lucas, president of the Ohio PTA, described the change in teacher union attitudes toward PTAs after the PTA challenged the teacher unions:

For years we did everything the teacher association wanted and we never disagreed about anything. We gave out certificates, awarded the principal a seat of honor and carried all the tax levies, and we were the nicest guys in the world. Now that we're beginning to deal with real issues, they have a different opinion of us.30

Although parents and the teacher unions disagreed about several issues, teacher strikes precipitated the crises that forced a resolution of the conflict. Despite the fact that strikes by public employees are prohibited by statute or judicial decision in most states, the incidence of teacher strikes increased dramatically after the teacher bargaining statutes were enacted. Actually, the number of strikes does not convey the magnitude of the problem: for every actual strike, there were scores of threatened strikes that led to turmoil in school districts. Needless to say, opinions about teacher strikes varied widely, but teachers and their unions certainly viewed them as more benign than did parents. The unions were sometimes successful in recruiting parents to their cause, but most parents were more concerned about the disruption to their own lives and their children's education than about the strike issues.

Ultimately, however, the outcome was virtually preordained. With miniscule funds, a highly transient membership, heavy dependence upon teacher support just to remain viable, and intimidation by teacher boycotts, the National PTA raised the white flag again in 1987. The board of PTA officers affirmed the 1968 board's neutrality position with only a few editorial changes. Neither the elected officers nor the PTA bureaucracy was willing to risk an organizational meltdown that might have resulted from a declaration of independence from the NEA. Neutrality marked the end of the PTA's independence because it prohibited the PTA from adopting positions that were opposed by the teacher unions.

In its defense, the PTA contends that its neutrality policy applies only to strikes. A fair reading of the policy in conjunction with its aftermath, however, demonstrates clearly that the defense is fallacious. For example, the National PTA policy advises local PTAs on what they should do in the "prestrike" period, as if PTA members could know beforehand that a strike would materialize. All the teacher union would have to do in order to neutralize the PTA would be to set a strike date, regardless of whether it actually planned to strike. Furthermore, if the PTA policy is applicable only to strikes, the PTA would have to explain why its affiliates are not involved in bargaining issues that are vital to parents and their children.

To appreciate the implications of PTA neutrality in teacher bargaining, one must consider what its guidelines recommend--and also what they do not mention. The guidelines include eighteen recommendations that either imply or suggest that strikes are justified, or ensure PTA support of union positions during a strike. The possibility that a teacher strike might be due to unreasonable union demands is never suggested, even implicitly. On the contrary, by urging PTAs to "seek action that corrects the basic cause of dissatisfaction," the resolution is clearly biased in favor of the union. "Teacher dissatisfaction" is not always justified, nor does it always merit PTA intervention. In fact, dissatisfaction is frequently fomented by the unions to cause more pressure on school boards to make concessions. The repeated support for "negotiations" implies that the school boards have not fully met their obligations to bargain in good faith before the strike. PTA guidelines do not mention the fact that when school boards do not bargain in good faith, the teacher unions have adequate remedies, such as filing unfair labor practice charges with state labor boards. The guidelines also recommend that PTAs make sure that negotiated agreements are "faithfully implemented." This ignores the fact that unions are the parties who cite contract violations, and that unions have ample legal remedies and resources to ensure that contracts are "faithfully implemented."

The omissions in PTA policy are an even more telling sign of PTA capitulation to the NEA. Significantly, PTA policy does not address parental concerns over items on which school boards are required to bargain (mandatory subjects of bargaining). One would expect several of these items to be high-priority issues in any organization dedicated to promoting parental and pupil interests:

What are teacher responsibilities to help pupils outside of regular class hours?

How long do teachers remain in school after class to assist pupils and/or confer with parents?

Are there adequate procedures to resolve student/parent grievances against teachers?

Is there any appeal from teacher grades, or negative recommendations to employers and institutions of higher education?

Do teacher contracts provide adequate opportunities for parents to confer with teachers? For example, if parents work during regular school hours, are there opportunities to meet with parents at some other time during the day?

Do pupil report cards convey adequate information about pupil progress?

What is the impact of teacher seniority on continuity of instruction and teacher/pupil relationships?

What criteria are included in teacher evaluations?

What is the district policy on teacher tenure?

Do district teachers have the qualifications to teach the grade(s) and subject(s) assigned?

How does the district deal with a negative teacher evaluation?

What is the percentage of teachers who have received unfavorable evaluations in the past 2-3 years?31

Surely, an organization that represents parents and students should have positions on such issues, and strive to have them adopted. Nevertheless, as a result of the PTA's "neutrality," local PTAs do not address these issues, or any others that might lead to conflict with the teacher unions. In contrast, the teacher unions aggressively bargain for their positions on all such issues. Despite the NEA's professed concern for parents and pupils, association proposals would often severely disadvantage both, to say the least. For instance, the teacher unions typically propose the following:

No student grade may be changed without the consent of the teacher. Obviously, this assumes that teachers always recognize and agree to correct their mistakes.

Teachers cannot be required to return in the evening or on weekends for parent conferences; if they do return voluntarily, they must be paid generously.

Parent complaints cannot be considered as a basis for disciplinary action unless the complaint is in writing and the teacher has had time off with pay to prepare a response.

If a parent has a complaint, the teacher has the right to have a union representative present when the complainant faces the teacher.

Parents who are not literate in English, such as many itinerant farm workers, are practically helpless in districts that accept such union proposals: even sophisticated parents are often deterred from pursuing their grievances against such union-imposed obstacles.

IV. The Aftermath of the Takeover

Although neutral on bargaining issues at the local level, the PTA is invariably supportive on other issues of importance to the NEA. It might be a stretch to assert that the NEA dictates PTA policy; it would not be a stretch, however, to assert that the NEA exercises a veto power over PTA policy on any issue that affects the NEA. PTA members often are not aware of this fact because overt coercion is no longer evident. PTA members and officials often bristle at the suggestion that the PTA is dominated by the teacher unions. If one thinks of domination only in terms of explicit union commands to the PTA, this reaction is understandable. In practice, however, NEA domination is pervasive. It shows up in the selection of speakers and convention programs, the issues that are raised and the ones shoved under the rug, the avoidance of union identification among delegates to PTA conventions, the immediate rejection at PTA conventions of any effort to reconsider union-backed positions, the similarity between PTA and union legislative agendas, and the PTA's leadership in union-funded coalitions.

Even if "shared views" explains the PTA's alignment with NEA positions, it does not explain the complete absence of attention to union policies detrimental to parental concerns at PTA meetings and conventions. Furthermore, by its own admission, the PTA has never disagreed with the NEA on any significant issue.32

Myron Lieberman's experience at the 1997 National PTA convention illustrates the NEA's low profile but heavy hand in PTA affairs. The PTA convention program listed workshops and showed only the name and city of each discussion leader, not his or her occupation. Lieberman, the author of several books and articles on teacher unions, attended one of the workshop sessions devoted to privatization issues. The discussion leader at the session was so skillful in presenting NEA positions without labeling them as such that Lieberman sought to identify the individual. After the session, Lieberman complimented the discussion leader and asked about his occupation. The first answer was: "I work for an educational organization." On further questioning, the discussion leader reluctantly revealed that he was a UniServ director employed by the Iowa Education Association. "UniServ director" is NEA-speak for union business agent and political operative. Lieberman was probably the only individual present at the session who realized that the discussion leader was a full-time NEA employee. The other delegates attending the session did not feel coerced, for they weren't: they were, however, exposed to only one side of highly controversial issues by someone purporting to be just an interested parent. This situation is commonplace at state and National PTA conventions: the union presence is pervasive but not usually apparent to convention delegates. Inasmuch as the divisive union/parent issues are not raised, delegates are not aware of any coercion.

The PTA has internalized its subordinate role: new members simply take for granted that the PTA is a support group for teachers. Supposedly, pupils will benefit as a result of PTA activities. Unfortunately, what the unions seek for teachers is not always good for students; hence, the PTA's neutrality is a major strategic victory for the NEA. When local PTAs do on occasion actively oppose a union position while the union is engaged in collective bargaining, the NEA does not hesitate to remind the PTA that its only option is to remain silent. For example, in April 1994, at the urging of its executive committee, NEA President Keith Geiger wrote to the president of the National PTA after the relationship between the NEA and a local PTA did not improve following settlement of a bitter contract dispute. Geiger "emphasized the long-standing tradition of cooperation and respect between the two organizations at the national level and asked the PTA president to remind its local affiliate of the National PTA's policy of neutrality in labor/management disputes in school districts."33

Perhaps the strongest argument against the thesis that the union dominates the PTA is that the PTA's leadership shares the NEA's educational and political views; there is no need to dominate an organization that willingly supports your positions. Nevertheless, this convergence argument clearly is not applicable to the PTA's policies on bargaining and privatization issues. On these issues, the record is clear that the PTA's neutrality is a direct result of the NEA's threats in the 1960s to withdraw its support and launch a new parent organization unless local PTAs stopped supporting school management in bargaining disputes. Because local PTAs are bound by national policy, the PTAs neutrality in collective bargaining has removed local PTAs as players on the local school issues that matter most to parents.


1. Grace Baisinger, "The National PTA: New Power on the Block," National Elementary Principal, March 1979, 76.

2. Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: The Metropolitan Experience, 1876-1980 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 311.

3. Allan M. West, The National Education Association: The Power Base for Education (New York: Free Press, 1980), 7.

4. Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education of the NEA, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education (Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of Education, 1918).

5. National Congress of Parents and Teachers, Proceedings of the Thirty-First Annual Convention of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers (Washington, DC: National Congress of Parents and Teachers, 1927), 311.

6. Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education of the PTA, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, 35.

7. National Congress of Parents and Teachers, Proceedings of the Thirtieth Annual Convention of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers (Washington, DC: National Congress of Parents and Teachers, 1926), 96.

8. Ibid., 113.

9. Ibid., 99.

10. Ibid., 102.

11. National Congress of Parents and Teachers, The Parent-Teacher Organization (Chicago: National Congress of Parents and Teachers, 1947), 51.

12. See, for example, the list of accomplishments in G. G. Koenig, "State President Reports--South Dakota," in National Congress of Parents and Teachers, Proceedings of the Thirtieth Annual Convention, 293. See also Alabama Branch of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, Year Book 1928-1929 (Birmingham, AL: State Board of Education, 1929), 17; Naomi Adams Whitesell and Louise Eleanor Ross Kleinhenz, The First Fifty Years of the Indiana Congress of Parents and Teachers, Inc. (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Congress of Parents and Teachers, 1962), 44, 81, 83-85, 88; Thad Stem, Jr., PTA Impact: 50 Years in North Carolina, 1919-1969 (Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Congress of Parents and Teachers, 1969), 63, 67; and Dorothy Sparks, Strong is the Current: History of the Illinois Congress of Parents and Teachers, 1900-1947 (Chicago: Illinois Congress of Parents and Teachers, 1948), 11, 37-40, 58-59, 131-32, 139, 235-36.

13. Sparks, Strong is the Current, 37.

14. Ibid., 38.

15. Ibid., 136.

16. Ibid., 126.

17. Cremin, American Education, 554.

18. West, The National Education Association, 29-30.

19. James Bryant Conant, Shaping Educational Policy (New York: McGraw-Hill), 1964, 37-38.

20. Joel Spring, "The Evolving Political Structure of American Schooling," in Robert B. Everhart, ed., The Public School Monopoly: A Critical Analysis of Education and the State in American Society (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1982), 97.

21. James D. Koerner, Who Controls American Education? A Guide for Laymen (Boston: Beacon, 1968), 147-49.

22. Clive S. Thomas, "Understanding Interest Groups in Midwestern Politics," in Ronald J. Hrebenar and Clive S. Thomas, eds., Interest Group Politics in the Midwestern States (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1993), 13-14.

23. For a detailed account of the emergence of teacher bargaining, see Myron Lieberman and Michael H. Moskow, Collective Negotiations for Teachers (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1966).

24. Ibid., 35.

25. West, The National Education Association, 64.

26. Myron Lieberman, The Teacher Unions (New York: Free Press, 1997), 124-46, 170.

27. National PTA, "Teacher Negotiations, Sanctions, and Strikes," in National PTA, National PTA Resolutions and Positions (Chicago: National PTA, 1995), IV.3B.

28. See ibid. for the text of the PTA's guidelines. The National PTA Board reaffirmed its position statement on "Teacher Negotiations, Sanctions, and Strikes" in 1987.

29. Rose Marie Scott-Blair, "The Changing PTA: No More Tea & Cookies and -- Maybe - No More 'T,'" Learning Magazine, January 1978, 68.

30. Ibid., 69.

31. Charlene K. Haar, "The Teachers' Unions," Crisis in Education, February 1998, 39-40.

32. Lieberman, The Teacher Unions, 225.

33. See National Education Association, Reports on Implementation of Actions of the 1993 Representative Assembly of the National Education Association (Washington, DC: National Education Association, 1994), 52.