In "The Politics of the PTA" (2002), Charlene Haar explains that the PTA shifted its focus mainly because of its longstanding alliance with the National Education Association. Formed in 1857, the NEA once shared the parent group's concern for schoolchildren in such matters as school curriculum and the qualifications of public-school teachers. Indeed, in 1920, the National Congress felt so much in line with the NEA that it moved into the association's impressive Washington headquarters. Already allied with the teachers group on support for a "progressive" curriculum that would emphasize "life skills," the PTA would from then on curb its more general social programs and limit itself to matters directly affecting education.
Ms. Haar chronicles the major policies on which the two groups cooperated throughout the 20th century. Having begun as equals, the PTA gradually became the subservient partner. Both organizations refused to support the National Defense Education Act--passed in 1958 in the wake of the Soviet's launch of Sputnik--because, as Ms. Haar explains, it "provided funds for mathematics, science and other defense-related curricula but could not be used for teacher salaries."
By the 1960s, the PTA was known as "a coffee-and-cookies organization"--unquestioningly offering its seal of approval to the newly unionized NEA. It was the issue of teacher strikes, though, that dealt the reputation of the PTA its final blow. In 1961 the AFT, representing New York City's teachers, staged the nation's first citywide strike, and in 1968 Florida teachers followed with the first statewide strike. To avoid conflict, the PTA abandoned any pretense of independence and supported the walkouts.
A few years later, the PTA tagged along with the NEA, lobbying for a cabinet-level federal department of education. What followed were a series of legislative victories for the teachers unions. Among their outstanding lobbying successes, backed by the PTA, was the defeat of a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Patrick Moynihan in 1978 proposing a tax credit for as much as half of private-school tuition. In the aftermath, many parents began their exodus from the PTA, including a large number of Catholics whose tuition fees for parochial schools would have become less burdensome under the plan.
Today the PTA supports all of the union's positions, including increased federal funding for education and opposition to independent charter schools, to vouchers and to tuition tax credits for private and religious schools. This "parent" group lobbies for teachers to spend less time in the classroom and to have fewer supervisory responsibilities like lunchroom duty. Moreover, they want a pay scale for teachers that is based on seniority, not merit. In November, the PTA even helped to defeat California's Proposition 74, which called for limiting teacher tenure by extending the probation period for new teachers from two to five years, a proposal designed to give administrators more time to weed out bad instructors.
With polls indicating that the union label is a liability with the public, an arrangement has developed whereby the NEA provides needed financial support for the PTA, which in turn bolsters union positions at the grass-roots level. As one union official put it: "[T]he PTA has credibility . . . we always use the PTA as a front."