Paula Roberts, an attorney with Legal Services Corp., was angry in the summer and fall of 1980 at what was happening to Stoddert Elementary School in the quiet Glover Park neighborhood of Northwest Washington.
The school, which Roberts' daughter attends, was going to lose three of its teachers--Roberts considered them three of the best--as part of 700 teacher layoffs citywide caused by a deepening city budget crisis. A junior high school counselor was slated to teach 3rd grade at Stoddert that fall. The principal of the school had asked the Parent-Teacher Association for funds to buy needed school supplies like paper and pencils.
"That made us all intensely aware that the school budget was being slashed," Roberts said of herself and her friends who had children in the public schools. "It made it clear that we could no longer work solely on issues at our own school, but that we had to have a broader effort."
So Roberts joined with a group of other public school parents, most from neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park but a few from other parts of the city, who had put together something they called Parents United for Full Funding.
Within a year and a half, this group, which started with about a dozen parents meeting over yogurt in somebody's downtown office, would become an influential 600-member organization, complete with its own downtown office, that has lobbied for the addition of tens of millions of dollars to the schools' budgets.
Working solely with parent volunteers, including a number of local lawyers, Parents United in the past two years has:
* Prepared a line-by-line budget analysis of the schools' financial needs for both 1982 and 1983;
* Completed a comparative analysis of D.C. school expenditures and those of the Montgomery County schools, a document which city school officials used in their testimony on the 1982 school budget before the House District Appropriations Subcommittee;
* Presented its own analysis and position paper on the contract proposals of the school system and the Washington Teachers Union; and
* Pushed for increased parent activism by putting out a sample letter for parents to send to city and congressional representatives in support of public school funding, organizing an October 1980 rally of more than 1,000 parents in support of increased funding, and maintaining the kind of high visibility that makes the superintendent of schools, the City Council and the mayor listen when Parents United speaks.
"It's pretty exciting when you look at how far we've come from a group of folks sitting around and saying, 'My God, we've got to do something,' " said Ward 3 school board member Wanda Washburn, one of the founders of Parents United.
Many of the Parents United members and contributors come from groups that already existed, like Parent-Teacher Associations, the Anacostia Community School Board, the Ward 3-4 Educational Council and D.C. Citizens for Better Public Education. With help from these organizations, Parents United raised $25,000 for its work last year.
Roderic V.O. Boggs, a public interest lawyer and early Parents United activist, said that what distinguishes it from PTAs and other existing parent groups is that Parents United, unlike the others, is not organized as a non-profit group and, therefore, may lobby legally on school issues. Unlike the PTAs, which traditionally focus on concerns at individual schools and avoid confrontations with city officials, Parents United was formed to address city-wide educational issues, Boggs said.
While members of Parents United come from various parts of the city, many of the most active members are from affluent Northwest and could afford to send their children to private schools, but stick by the public schools.
"I believe passionately in public education. It's the basis of a non-rigid, classless society," said Susan McDonald, who is paid $100 a week for manning the Parents United Office at 733 15th St. NW for a few hours each day. McDonald, a lawyer, has children at Oyster Elementary School in Woodley Park and Deal Junior High near Tenley Circle.
"The social experience they've had in public schools goes far beyond what they would have gotten in private schools," McDonald said of her children. "It reflects the community we live in."
Overall, Parents United has won high marks from city officials. "They analyzed the 1982 and 1983 budgets and gave very good advice," said council member Hilda Mason (Statehood-At large), chairman of the council's education committee. "They have some very expert people in their organization, especially lawyers and financial specialists."
Parent volunteer Mary Levy, a lawyer with an expertise in budget matters, prepared the comparative analysis between D.C. and Montgomery schools. Her children attend Hyde Elementary School in Georgetown.
Virginia Koehler and Carter Collins, two top officials at the National Institute of Education, volunteered to write the Parents United position paper on the teacher contract proposals. Koehler has a child at Hobson Middle School in Southwest and Collins' children attend Lafayette Elementary School in Chevy Chase.
School board Vice President Nathaniel Bush said Parents United has "helped the public focus on issues concerning education instead of on the personalities of members of the board, as it was in the past."
And City Council member Polly Shackleton, in whose Ward 3 Parents United had its origins, gives the group credit for doing financial analyses that the school board should have been doing all along.
The school budget was increased by $28 million for the 1982 school year and some $57 million for 1983 over Mayor Marion Barry's original proposals. Council members give some credit for those increases to Parents United.
"We were the first organization that went line by line through the budget," to assess the school system's financial needs, said Terry Doyle, a Murch Elementary School parent who works at NBC-TV in Washington. "That gave us a lot of credibility" at a time when the mayor, some members of the City Council and the congressional committees were questioning the school board's budget proposals.
The organization has also become something of a political springboard for parents. Besides Washburn, three other 1981 school board candidates, Manuel Lopez, Phyllis Young and Linda Moody, came out of the parents movement. Washburn was the only one to win, though Lopez and Young came in right behind the winners in the at-large race.
Some parents in the group acknowledge, however, that their experience with the D.C. schools has been bittersweet.
Two of the original members of Parents United, both of whom asked not to be named, said they have recently taken their children out of D.C. schools. One parent said she felt her son was not achieving well enough at Murch Elementary in Cleveland Park. She said school officials there spend so much time on internal and school system problems, that "there is not enough time to pay attention to the individual problems of children."
The other parent said she pulled her son out of Murch because she found his teacher to be "a very negative person" who was affecting her son's self-image.