The cliche image of the PTA as a group of people holding baked goods sales and auditorium gatherings is woefully out of date. Today's PTAs are activist groups that lobby vigorously to influence government policies affecting public school children.
Locally, the District of Columbia Congress of Parents and Teachers Associations lobbied successfully for a bill to prohibit the sale of drug paraphernalia and teamed up with labor organizations to defeat a tuition tax credit initiative. Representatives from the group sit on many official bodies, including the committee that searched for a new school superintendent earlier this year.
"In recent years, the PTA has become more acutely aware that the biggest things that affect children and youth are political," explained William H. L. Brown, president of the congress. "We don't believe in doing things by confrontation, but we do use political leverage.
"Bake sales are what people see," Brown added. "We are involved in anything that has to do with public education and the welfare of the children."
The D.C. Congress, the state arm of the National Parents and Teachers Association, encompasses the 150 PTAs in the District. When there's an issue to fight, the school PTAs work through the congress.
Brown can recall only one battle that the D.C. Congress lost this year. It opposed a Board of Education move that established advisory councils at community schools because it felt that the councils were not necessary in schools with active PTAs. He is particularly proud of the organization's success in getting the City Council to prohibit the sale of drug paraphernalia in the city.
When Maryland passed a law prohibiting the sale of drug-related items, some "head shops" moved into the District, Brown said. Parents complained, and the issue was born.
"We formed a coalition with other organizations fighting drug abuse," he said. "We had 51 days to work. When we got there, the council had before it a bill that would have allowed the licensed sale of drug paraphernalia and they already had taken a preliminary vote to approve it.
"The PTA lobbied vigorously for the better part of two weeks," he recalled. "We had a young lady go to every council member's office and give him a demonstration of the paraphernalia that a young person could buy at these stores."
Council member Jerry Moore was convinced. He recommended that the bill be changed to prohibit the sale of drug-related items, and his version of the bill passed.
Moore's executive assistant, Nancy Brailsford, said everyone at the District Building is familiar with members of the D.C. Congress.
"They are very much concerned about issues affecting youth," she said. "If such an issue comes before the council . . . they do appear and they do let their views be known."
In the initiative battle against a local tuition tax credit, the PTA formed its own coalition of members, then joined council chairman Arrington Dixon in another coalition. Finally, a third coalition had to be formed for non-PTA members "who hesitated to work with a political organization," said Brown, who ended up on the steering committee of each of the three groups.
To get funding for the activities of the third coalition, Brown turned to several labor organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers. The labor groups paid to mail to almost 70,000 voters a letter Brown wrote in opposition to the tuition tax credits, an expensive manuever that Brown's group could not have done alone.
Scott Widmeyer, an AFT spokesman, said of the PTA: "It's a moving force within each school and as a citywide and statewide organization. They can certainly get things going."
PTAs reap little praise from the public because of an "image problem," said Brown. PTAs "have to be more active politically today," he said, but added, "I'm not sure activism is something new. Few people realize that PTAs fought in the past to get libraries, counselors and child-health programs in public schools.
"We have had active times and times when we haven't been very active," Brown said. "All of this creates a problem. . . . When we go out and ask people to help us get a job done, they say, 'What are you doing.?' "
It especially dismays him that some people don't know about the citywide school programs initiated by the PTA. He cited the newest, "Project Attend," a discipline program involving the parent, student and teacher, and "Path," a reading program in which a student and his parent agree that the student will read a certain number of books at home during the school term.
This school year, the D.C. Congress will turn its attention to some new issues, including lobbying to have the school board president elected by District voters rather than by other board members, and fighting to raise the city's minimum drinking age. Brown is hoping that when the school term ends, people won't be asking, "What did the PTA do?"