The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can the PTA help Americans be more civic-minded?

Parents and teachers once worked well together. That spirit is what we need amid another covid-marred school year.

Students and parents gather outside the Texas Governor’s Mansion on Aug. 16 to urge Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to drop his opposition to public school mask mandates. (Eric Gay/AP)

Children are heading back to school, and the adults in their lives are fighting like cats and dogs. Mask-wearing, a seemingly benign way to stanch the spread of the coronavirus, has become a polarizing political issue and source of tension at school board meetings and between school superintendents and governors.

At the core of the disputes is a broader question: Are public schools for the good of the individual or the good of the community? Even before covid-19, too often parents focused on the individual needs of their children. And the pandemic has made it worse. Public school parents in Miami-Dade County, for example, now can take advantage of a new addendum to a policy on bullying to claim “covid-19 harassment” and receive vouchers to send their children to private schools. Policies such as these usually advantage White, middle-class parents who feel a sense of agency in public education.

Given how adversarial things have become, thoughts of a common ground — much less a fruitful partnership — between the various adults involved in American education seems nearly impossible to envision. But of course, it wasn’t always this way. Rather, there were many times when parents and teachers worked together, collaboratively and productively to fight for educational change — and resurrecting that spirit could reinvigorate American education and bolster schools and communities.

Between the end of the Civil War and the mid-20th century, there was a particularly robust period of organizing associations to address political and social issues, such as temperance, through the schools. During this time, Black, White, native-born, and immigrant men and women of different classes all founded national voluntary associations that dealt with education. They included fraternal organizations, veterans groups, women’s clubs, civic associations, study clubs, ethnic groups and even secret societies, such as the Masons. In each group, parents and educators worked in partnership on behalf of children and schools. Although the relationships were not without friction, they were productive.

One of the central organizations to emerge at this time was the National Parent-Teacher Association, which became the leading organization to bridge home and school in the 20th century. The association began as the National Congress of Mothers in 1897 in Washington, D.C., and while most of the attendees at that first meeting were White women, there were some White male speakers and Black women in attendance, too. From the start, the PTA focused on three key ideas: disseminating the latest research on child rearing, promoting public education for all, and ensuring that schools were clean, attractive and staffed with skilled teachers. To the PTA and other organizations in the early 20th century, education and schooling were everyone’s responsibility.

Black civic organizations thrived on a trajectory of their own. Around the rural American South in this period, Black teachers created School Improvement Societies to bring together citizens to literally build schools and, in the process, build local communities. These groups continued holding fundraisers and coordinating assembles after schools were constructed to ensure teachers and students had books and other materials. In 1926, because of the increasing number of state and local groups, the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers was founded to serve the former enslaving states in the South, and it became the segregated branch of the PTA with its own national, state and local units.

By the mid-1930s, as membership in White PTAs grew and the organizations became more dominated by parents, tensions escalated. Male principals criticized female volunteers for their social, seemingly frivolous activities and didn’t want them to become “second boards of education,” a criticism that reflected female volunteers’ attempts to institute curricular reforms or engage in discussions about teachers’ salaries. But nevertheless, the partnerships and spirit of organization persisted. Black parent-teacher groups, by contrast, experienced less tension between home and school in the 1930s and 1940s mainly because Black teachers remained a significant proportion of their leadership, which was focused on establishing schools in the rural South, promoting education to parents and community members and holding fundraisers to get desperately needed books and materials for their schools.

To carry out its work, the Colored Congress also formed synergistic relationships with other organizations, such as the NAACP, the Black Elks and the National Association for Teachers in Colored Schools. These relationships helped sustain Black PTAs and schools with financial and moral support. For example, local African American PTA units supported the Black Elks’ “Educational Week,” beginning in 1927, which spotlighted public education at Elks’ lodge meetings and brought community members together to support local schools.

The Black PTA gave African Americans a voice in schooling that they did not otherwise have in the Jim Crow South, where Black schools were overseen by White school boards. For instance, local units could choose to hold fundraisers and organize social events when they so desired. And at the same time, it also benefited from the White PTA’s vast network of action in communities and in lobbying for federal legislation.

Both PTA branches helped raise money to fund programs and features we now take for granted, including school lunches, day (care) nurseries, bubble (water) fountains, playgrounds, kindergartens, vacation schools and medical inspections in schools, as well as new school buildings and “beautification” of existing schools. The organizations held local and state meetings at which they spread the word about how to accomplish such reforms, and the national offices coordinated together in these campaigns.

By the mid-20th century, the heyday of the PTA, its White branch reached 9 million members and the Black PTA surged to almost 200,000. Despite being segregated, the PTA had become a powerful lobby and schools and families around the nation benefited from its efforts, which included instituting school lunches nationwide and promoting immunization. Also, picking up steam in the 1950s, Black PTA leaders and those of other civic organizations, such as the Black Elks and the National Urban League, took up civil rights efforts such as instituting voter registration drives, placing voting machines in schools and offering adult literacy classes at night.

But within two decades the tides shifted dramatically. The desegregation of the PTA in 1970 played a role. The organization promptly lost a significant number of Black members; while integration created one equal institution in theory, in practice, very few leadership positions at the national and state levels were given to the African American leaders of the dissolved Black PTA. At the local level, parents of color also no longer felt welcome in schools that were desegregated, as most Black teachers and school leaders were fired.

But membership rolls didn’t just drop because of desegregation. Instead, broader social and political trends, such as declining trust in institutions and the fraying of social connections, diminished the roster of White members, too. The National PTA followed the path of many other voluntary organizations; after 1970, fewer Americans attended face-to-face meetings, signed petitions and joined voluntary associations. Instead, they engaged in more individual pursuits. In short, the number of individuals “bowling alone” increased.

Entering the third decade of the 21st century, we can see how the cult of individuality and the cost of diminished civic capacity is challenging schools’ ability to create safe, and thus successful, learning environments for children. But what would have to change to recover the partnership between home and school again? How might we reset the order for the good of the community to come before the preferences of individual families?

Indeed, moments of inspiration abound. Take the community members and teachers who banded together to create the #RedforEd movement or, more recently, the parents in El Paso who successfully organized to lobby their local school board to pass a mask mandate. In pockets around the United States, parents and educators are pushing back against self-interested approaches to public schooling. To translate these localized moments of hope into widespread school reform, we need to take a page from history and focus on organizing around the common principle that education and schooling are everyone’s responsibility.