America's public schools — for all their failings — are a glorious affirmation of the ideals of equal opportunity that we should be celebrating this Fourth of July weekend. Schools should be free and public, but two significant factors suggest that public funding could use a boost from parents and the private sector. While school foundations are springing up, why not rethink the role of that good, old-fashioned institution, the parent-teacher (-student) association, or PTA?
First, if you've read the news lately, you know that most school systems are facing budgetary slash and burn — pressures only likely to grow if the economy does not perk up and when the Obama stimulus funds for education run out. While $48 billion in federal money is credited with temporarily saving 284,000 teacher jobs last school year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, that money will run out in 2011, and it has been estimated that upwards of 300,000 jobs may be lost in the coming year. California already has cut $17 billion and 17,000 teachers, and Baltimore last month announced it would cut 450 school positions.
The second reason for bringing PTAs and PTSAs more into the mix is that education experts and dedicated parents are absolutely right that parental involvement is as crucial as teacher quality — and more important than many other inputs in K-12 education — in helping students succeed and thrive. "Parental effort is consistently associated with higher levels of achievement, and the magnitude of the effect of parental effort is substantial," University of New Hampshire economist Karen Conway recently reported. "We found that schools would need to increase per-pupil spending by more than $1,000 in order to achieve the same results that are gained with parental involvement."
However, PTAs are a withering shadow of what they might be. I got a painful taste of this recently at a middle school PTSA meeting, where I was aide-de-camp to my 13-year-old son, who had become the organization's student representative. A valiant but tiny group of parents struggle to use minuscule, bake sale-accrued funds to help improve the educational experience of 800 middle-school students. Yet, like PTAs at schools throughout America, the annual budget — to bring in a Shakespeare troupe, run a parent resource center for new residents, plant a school garden, hold a parents' welcome night and a student dance, etc. — was the equivalent of $15 per student.
Why, in a $14 trillion economy with more than 50 million parents of school-age children, are there so few private dollars and volunteered hours to make school life for America's 55 million K-12 students better?
Yes, America spends a lot on K-12 education — at least $600 billion, or approximately $10,000 per student. This amounts to more than 10 percent of federal, state, and local government spending and over 4 percent of GDP. Yet, this is considerably less than the government already lays out for Medicare and Medicaid together, or for Social Security or the Defense Department alone. (One could argue that well-educated future generations provide considerably greater social security and defense for our nation.)
PTAs, which have been around for more than a century, are "a way for passionate, dedicated parents to get involved in K–12 schools," according to the U.S. National PTA. However, America's 25,000 PTA or PTSA school chapters claim fewer than 10 percent of parents as members, significantly down from the 1960s.
On this national holiday, America's parents — and other adults and businesses, for that matter — should commit to aggressively increase parental participation in PTAs both in the form of contributions and volunteered time. In the spirit of public service, helping kids who are often called "our most precious resource," and chipping in for a worthy cause at a time of serious financial need, let's launch at the local and national levels efforts to vastly strengthen and reconceive our PTSAs.
How about school and national public-service campaigns to triple PTA membership, more ambitious and creative fundraising (bake sales and dances, while fun, get a little tired), and partnering with local businesses? If students are required to have "service learning" hours to graduate, wouldn't it be reasonable to heavily incentivize parents to put in "school service" hours? Religions nominally require tithing; if public education is part of our secular democratic "religion" that we celebrate this week, why not require (depending on one's ability to pay) contributing more than the cost of a few lattes to one's PTA? And why limit these organizations to parents? They should become PTSCAs — Parent Teacher Student Community Associations, raising money from adults without children, and adding a grandparents' auxiliary. Businesses could match employee contributions.
With the additional funds, after-school electives could be expanded, technology less than a decade old could make it into classrooms, guest lecturers could be brought in, and field trips could be more subsidized. Families and students could do things to instill more pride in their schools, such as better libraries and landscaping or installing solar panels or real grass on tattered football fields.
Facing fiscal crisis, educational underperformance, civic disengagement and strains on our families, what better way to help remedy all of these issues at once than to transform and bolster our PTAs?
Andrew L. Yarrow, a Washington public-policy professional, modern U.S. historian and longtime journalist, is the author of Forgive Us Our Debts and the forthcoming book Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late 20th Century. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.