News: CJ Exclusives

N.C. PTA attracts more tax dollars, even as parents turn away

Membership plummets as parents wonder about organization's role in schools

While the North Carolina Parent Teacher Association is becoming less popular among parents, it is becoming more popular among politicians.

North Carolina parents are leaving the PTA by the thousands, opting to form independent parent teacher organizations. Some are making the switch because they’re fed up with the PTA’s political involvement — it partners with teacher unions to lobby against school choice, and its national organization opposes the Bush tax cuts — but most parents just want more bang for their buck.

The General Assembly found NCPTA worthy of more than $1 million in dropout prevention grants over the last four years. The grants were given for NCPTA’s Parent Involvement Initiative, even though parent involvement in the organization has declined steadily for 50 years.

The organization has lost one-third of its membership since 2001 and is only half the size it was in the 1960s. Its remaining 188,000 members represent about 7 percent of the state’s parents with children in school.

NCPTA has received nearly $2 million in government funds since 2007. Tax dollars now make up about two-thirds of its operating budget.

In June, the General Assembly appropriated $500,000 from its $15 million in dropout prevention funds to the PTA’s parent involvement program. It is the largest grant the organization has received so far. The spending was awarded with no application and no evidence the program had accomplished its goal the previous three years.

Parent involvement coordinators

The goal of the Parent Involvement Initiative is to keep more kids in school by engaging parents in school activities. Its website lists the following successes:

• At Douglas Byrd Middle School in Cumberland County, parent clubs for Hispanic families helped 19 students pass reading and math tests.

• At West Hoke Middle School, home visits to at-risk students helped 18 students “improve” developmental scores.

• Home libraries were established for select libraries at Anson Middle School in Anson County.

• Traffic has increased on the NCPTA website.

NCPTA recently has hired six paid staff members — an executive director and five “parent involvement coordinators.”

Debra Horton, who served previously without pay as NCPTA president, created a paid position for herself — executive director — before her term expired in 2009. She since has hired five full-time staff members to do the work previously done by volunteers.

Horton said the full-timers were necessary because volunteers didn’t have time to make home visits, sit in on parent-teacher conferences, and conduct parent-education workshops.

Also, they’ve built customized home libraries for 25 families in Hoke County and “several other counties,” she said.

When asked how much the coordinators were paid, Horton said she’d have to check her records. She since has ignored several attempts by phone and e-mail to follow up to answer the question. She also refuses to release her own salary.

Parent seeks volunteerism

Carolina Journal spoke to several frustrated teachers, principals, and parents who wished to not be identified because they feared retribution from either the NCPTA or the North Carolina Association of Educators, with which it is closely aligned.

One parent said she was “appalled” when she heard the PTA got $500,000 this year. “I’ve been scratching my head for the last year and a half trying to figure out what the PTA actually does,” she said.

As a board member at her child’s elementary school — where PTA membership dropped from 70 to 40 last year — she was in charge of PTA drives. People started asking her, “What does the PTA do for my child? Why should I join?”

This year, she told the principal she’s not going to participate in the membership drive. Instead she’s going to promote volunteerism.

“People don’t understand that you don’t have to be a member of the PTA to volunteer in your child’s classroom,” she said.

New uniform bylaws

Meantime, NCPTA recently changed its bylaws, making it tougher for schools to leave the organization and penalizing those that do. Local chapters traditionally had some flexibility in writing rules and bylaws for membership in NCPTA.

The new “Uniform PTA Bylaws,” which every chapter is expected to adopt by July 1, requires any school wishing to end its PTA affiliation to send a formal notice of its intent to dissolve its membership by registered mail to the president of NCPTA, get a two-thirds vote from those who “were members [of the local chapter] in good standing on the date of the adoption of the resolution,” and send the minutes of that meeting to the state president.

And while local chapters that left NCPTA previously were allowed to donate unspent proceeds of fundraising drives to any nonprofit group, NCPTA now treats the money collected from bake sales and car washes at local schools as its property. After settling any debts, when a school chapter leaves NCPTA, “the remaining assets shall be distributed to NCPTA or to a local PTA in good standing approved by NCPTA.”

Lawmakers justify grants

This year’s bill that appropriated dropout prevention funds to the NCPTA had 22 sponsors. Only four answered phone calls or e-mails asking why the PTA deserved the money.

Rep. Cullie Tarleton, D-Watauga, suggested CJ first contact “the primary primary sponsors” — Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, and Rep. Douglas Yongue, D-Scotland — before commenting.

Glazier said the House Appropriations Committee wanted to give a larger portion of the dropout prevention grants to “programs that have shown capacity for replication, good outcomes and that are research-based or have substantial research-based components adapted to North Carolina.”

The PTA met those conditions, he said. When asked for documentation, Glazier suggested contacting either Horton or Gerry Hancock, a former state senator turned lobbyist for NCPTA.

Yongue said the PTA could prevent dropouts by educating parents. “They have strong parent organizations in Singapore, and the dropout rate there is almost zero.”

China, India, and Denmark pay parents to attend school meetings, he added. “Plus, you won’t find an overweight student or faculty member in those countries.”

Rep. William Brisson, D-Bladen, said he co-sponsored the bill because his rural district had “a lot of high school dropouts,” and that he assumed some schools in his district were affiliated with NCPTA. The Bladen County superintendent informed CJ there were no PTA schools in the area.

PTA vs. PTO

Brisson’s confusion could have been related to the distinction between PTOs and the PTA.

Founder of PTOToday.com Tim Sullivan said parents often refer to their school’s parent-teacher organizations as the PTA, even though 75 percent of these groups nationwide are unaffiliated.

Sullivan said some parents want out of the PTA because of the organization’s left-leaning political activism and its close ties to the National Education Association, but more often parents want to keep money in their schools and spend it as they see fit.

Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.