Woodson High, South County Secondary Leave National PTA

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 2009

As the windows darkened in the Woodson High School library, dozens of mothers and fathers raised orange cards in the air and voted to sever the school's nearly five-decades-long relationship with the national PTA.

The high school was one of two in Fairfax County this month that took steps to form independent parent groups, the latest blows to one of the nation's oldest and best-known child advocacy groups as it struggles to curtail an exodus of supporters.

From a high mark of 12 million in the 1960s, national PTA membership has dropped to a little more than 5 million. Although school enrollments have ballooned, the PTA lost a million members in the past decade alone. Through the years, Washington's inner suburbs have been high-profile exceptions to the general decline. More than 90 percent of the schools in Fairfax, Arlington and Montgomery counties have PTAs, for instance, compared with about 25 percent nationally.

But even here, there are worrisome signs for the future of the PTA.

"I think it's time we join the nation," Catherine Potter, Woodson High PTSA's past president, told the assembled parents and a few jersey-clad students last week. She argued that the national group is too bureaucratic and less relevant in the Internet age, when parents have access to education-related news from Richmond or Washington and can get involved politically in other ways.

Only the night before, South County Secondary School in Lorton held the first meeting of an independent Parent-Teacher-Student Organization. Nannette Henderson, vice president of the group, said it was hard to find business partners and raise funds last year, and they needed the $3,000 they spent on national, state and county dues for awards ceremonies and other events at home.

The growing number of splinter parent groups, which typically focus on an individual school's needs, is a continuing challenge for the "Every child/one voice" mission of the national PTA.

"People today look more for: 'What's in it for me? How will this help my child?' " said Melissa Nehrbass, president of the Virginia PTA. Declining PTA membership, she said, means fewer people who will fight for children who don't have a parent speaking out for them.

Since the end of the 19th century, the association has brought together a network of parents who support their children's schools and has backed a national child-welfare agenda that left a lasting imprint. Stay-at-home mothers cut their teeth on PTA politics while helping to launch nationwide kindergarten classes, juvenile justice courts, immunization programs and healthy school lunch plans.

The national association attributes its dwindling numbers to the increase in working mothers and declining participation in community organizations generally. A major turning point came when parent groups were obligated to desegregate, and thousands of local PTAs disaffiliated in protest.

Other political stands have also alienated members over time. Some have seen the national group as too liberal on issues such as sex education; others have deemed it too conservative, a mouthpiece for teachers and school administrators.

Virginia and Maryland continue to be PTA bastions. More than 60 percent of schools have chapters, according to the state groups. Only a handful of Montgomery County's 200 schools are not affiliated. The rate is lower in recently developed exurbs such as Loudoun and Prince William, which have no countywide PTA organizations. In the District, only 15 schools -- about 10 percent -- had PTAs in the 2007-08 academic year, according to the national organization.

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