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64 E d u c a t i o n a l l E a d E r s h i p / s E p t E m b E r 2 0 1 7

Christine Woyshner
and Maia Cucchiara

arents have been
organizing home-school
groups as long as there
have been common,
or public, schools. In

1841, the women of Kensington,
Connecticut, prompted by noted edu-
cator Emma Willard, formed a Female
Common School Association to hear
student recitations and to support the
local school by purchasing books and
overseeing renovations (Cutler, 2000).
Since then, school-community groups
have proliferated and gained standing
in a diverse array of communities. For
a long time, many or most of the local
groups were members of the National
Parent Teacher Association (PTA),

which was founded in 1897.1 Parent-
teacher groups have long positioned
themselves as organizations operating
in the best interests of all schools,
students, and teachers. The reality,
however, is a bit more complicated.

As a historian and a sociologist, we
have studied—from different disci-
plines—voluntary efforts to support,
improve, and shape schooling and the
curriculum. We approach our work
considering who benefits from parents’
organizing and what organizations
bring to school communities. Do vol-
unteers’ kids benefit? Other kids? Who
is included, and who is excluded?
Also, we look to the history of parent-
teacher organizing to gain insights
on how to bring parents and teachers
together today and how to harness
parents’ energies in ways that benefit
as many students as possible.

History of Parent-Teacher
In February 1897, a group of society
matrons—all female relatives of
President Grover Cleveland’s cabinet
members—convened the first meeting
of the National Congress of Mothers,
the group that would later become
the National PTA. Their goal was to
disseminate the latest research on
childrearing; to ensure that both poor,
immigrant children and children of
the rich would have access to a sound
education; and to make sure that
schools were clean, attractive, and
staffed with skilled teachers equipped
with the latest curriculum. The early
PTA promoted the new educational
innovation of the kindergarten and
its motto of serving the children of
the United States. In other words, the
National PTA was committed, at least

Can Parent-Teacher
Groups Work for

All Students?
The 176-year history of parent-teacher organizations
is complex—and entirely relevant to today’s schools.

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A S C D / w w w . A S C D . o r g 65

Can Parent-Teacher
Groups Work for

All Students?

nominally, to serving all children, and
community members joined the local
association even if they didn’t have
children in the schools.

Perhaps most stunning, at a time of
Jim Crow laws and acute racial ani-
mosity, the Mothers’ Congress leaders
declared in 1897 that they would not
“draw the color line.” Despite these
early calls, however, the reality of
racism in American life and segregated
schools prevented black education
leaders from participating in the white
organization from the outset.

In the 1890s, black teachers in the

segregated schools of the U.S. South
were already engaged in founding
school-improvement societies to
support the rural schools at which
they taught. Many more school-com-
munity groups for segregated schools
were created in the early decades of
the 20th century, which resulted in
the founding of several state black
PTA branches. A separate national
association was formally founded in
1926, called the National Congress of
Colored Parents and Teachers. It was
a segregated branch of the National
(white) PTA, organized to serve the
segregated schools of the South.

The turn of the 20th century was a

time of progressive reform in schools
and society, when citizens believed
they could remake the world through
better education, efficiency in schools,
and an educated parenthood. Nowhere
was this expression as heightened
as in the many PTA groups that
increased greatly in number as the
century wore on. During this time,
local parent-teacher associations were
responsible for every administrative,
curricular, and social service reform in
schools (Reese, 2002). Their initiatives
ensured school lunches were served,
water fountains were installed, and
portraits of great American presidents
were hung in classrooms.

Black PTAs carried out the same
program of work; they were, after all,

In this 1964 photo, the
superintendent of Denver
Public Schools addresses PTA
leaders, principals, and school

Parent-teacher groups have long positioned themselves as
organizations operating in the best interests of all schools, students,
and teachers. The reality, however, is a bit more complicated.


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66 E d u c a t i o n a l l E a d E r s h i p / s E p t E m b E r 2 0 1 7

part of the same association and fol-
lowing the same bylaws. However, the
black PTA also focused on racial uplift
and interracial cooperation. In the
first half of the 20th century, because
segregated schools were grossly under-
funded, black school-community
groups relied heavily on fund-raising.
This led white PTA leaders to criticize
their black counterparts for focusing
on raising money, arguing that they
should emphasize curriculum and
programming more (Woyshner, 2009).

In 1963, the National PTA enjoyed
its peak membership of 12.1 million
members. Local members learned
important leadership skills, fund-
raising strategies, and parliamentary
practices, and could move up in the
ranks to state or national leadership.
By this point, the organization was
behind sweeping legislative reforms,
such as the School Lunch Act of
1945, and had influence in major
international initiatives, including the
founding of UNESCO.

After the Brown v. Board of Education
decision in 1954, the PTA’s national
white leadership, based in Chicago,
instructed all southern units to inte-
grate, but white units in the Deep
South refused. During a protracted
organizational desegregation process,
which lasted until 1970, the National
PTA experienced a mass exodus of
both black and white members. By
1980, membership was cut in half.
The organization’s total membership
remained around 6 million until the
turn of the 21st century.

Since then, parent-teacher organiza-
tions (PTOs) not affiliated with the
national organization have flourished

at schools—in large part because they
don’t have to pay dues to a national
organization, which means more
money for the local school. Today, the
National PTA’s membership stands at
approximately 4 million, while most
schools in the United States have an
active home-school council.

Contemporary PTOs
Today’s PTOs continue to play an
important role in public schools,
especially as sources of funds. Across
the country, these organizations
help pay for everything from school
supplies to enrichment programs to
additional teachers. According to one
recent study, the revenue that these
groups raised more than quintupled
between 1995 and 2010 (Nelson and
Gazley, 2014). The same study found
that PTOs that raised the most money
were in districts serving more affluent
communities with higher per pupil
spending. Rather than making up for
insufficient school budgets, PTOs have
tended to increase funding inequality.
These dynamics raise questions about
the extent to which PTOs are serving
all children or whether—as with the
20th-century controversy over inte-
gration—divisions around race and
class undermine this potential.

Such funding differences can
also exist within districts, as some
schools—especially those serving large
numbers of middle- and upper-income
families—are able to raise significantly
more money than those serving less-
advantaged communities. According
to a recent report from the Center for
American Progress, PTOs in some
schools raise hundreds of thousands

(or even millions) of dollars each year
(Brown, Sargrad, and Benner, 2017).

Some districts, aware of the ways
PTO fund-raising can disproportion-
ately benefit certain schools, have
taken steps to balance the funding
more fairly. For example, PTOs in
Portland, Oregon, must give one-third
of any revenues over $10,000 they
raise each year to a fund that then
redistributes the money according
to school and student need (Brown,
Sargrad, and Benner, 2017).

These arrangements can be con-
tentious, however. Some parents
in affluent Malibu, California, have
moved to secede from the less wealthy
Santa Monica School District because
they want the money they raise
going only to their children’s schools
(Goldstein, 2017). One parent and
school board member argued that this
practice provides “the opportunity to
put your money where your heart is”
(Goldstein, 2017). To these parents,
sending money raised by one school
community to another school under-
mined their vision of what a PTO
should do, which is to allow parents
to support their own children’s

Parents in Urban Schools
The perils and promises of PTOs are
especially apparent in urban public
schools with significant middle-class
engagement. In the past decade, some
cities have witnessed an increase in
the number of middle-class families
who, seeking diversity and an urban
lifestyle, have decided to forgo the
customary move to the suburbs and
instead raise their children in the

The reality of racism in American life and segregated schools
prevented black education leaders from participating
in the white organization from the outset.

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A S C D / w w w . A S C D . o r g 67

city. Knowing that the public schools
their children will attend are generally
underfunded and underperforming,
these families frequently become
deeply involved in parent-teacher
groups, working to improve facilities,
reduce class size, and add additional
programming (Cucchiara, 2013;
Posey-Maddox, 2014).

Middle-class parents have helped
transform schools in Chicago, Phila-
delphia, Boston, and other cities that
have long struggled to meet students’
basic educational needs. Urban PTOs
led by middle-class parents can also
push schools to raise standards and
increase accountability for educators.
Although most middle-class parents
are primarily interested in improving
their own children’s education expe-
riences, their involvement can have
widespread consequences, benefitting
all students in the school. In such
cases, parents can be justifiably proud
that they are part of the solution.

But this is not the whole story.
When middle-class parents become
involved in urban public schools—
often taking the lead in PTOs—their

enthusiasm for “fixing” the school can
marginalize other parents, especially
low-income parents of color. These
parents care just as much about their
children’s education as middle-class
parents, but they may not have the
time or money to be involved in the
same way and can find their own con-
tributions devalued (Posey-Maddox,
2014). Middle-class parents can also
direct PTO resources in ways that are
more beneficial to their own children
than to the school as a whole.

At the same time, school and district
leaders, excited about the resources
middle-class families bring and
worried such families will not stay,
often grant them too much power,
allowing middle-class parents to have
outsized influence in decisions of
policy or resource distribution.

In addition, as schools that were
long avoided by middle-class families
become more desirable, fewer spots

are available to other students, often
low-income children hoping to avoid
failing neighborhood schools. Phila-
delphia’s affluent Center City area is
a case in point. As more middle- and
upper-income families moved into
the area and sent their children to
their neighborhood public schools,
spots in those schools for children
from outside of Center City disap-
peared, making finding a good school
much harder.

These issues get even trickier
when parent-teacher groups take on
the task of “marketing” the school
to other middle-class families (Cuc-
chiara, 2013). Middle-class parents
may want to convince other families
like theirs to use the neighborhood
public school because more middle-
class families generally mean more


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68 E d u c a t i o n a l l E a d E r s h i p / s E p t E m b E r 2 0 1 7

resources to support the school.
However, as Maia’s research in

Philadelphia has shown, efforts to
market a school to middle-class
families can send harmful messages
to low-income families, telling them
that they are unwanted by the school,
prompting policies that disadvantage
their children, and making it dif-
ficult for parents to advocate for their
children (Cucchiara, 2013). At one
school, some middle-class parents
celebrated the enrollment of more
“neighborhood” children, but parents
who did not live in neighborhood (and
had used the district’s transfer system
to enroll their children in the school)
felt devalued. Said one low-income

Every meeting we go to, they’re talking
about, “And two more families coming
in. They’re neighborhoods.” That’s kind
of like a prejudice to me…. What’s so
important about this person from the
neighborhood coming here? … It’s kind
of like I’m supporting this school that’s
not even supporting my kid, because
he’s not from the neighborhood.
(p. 158–159)

What Educators Can Do
In some ways, then, local PTOs have
run into some of the same issues of
bias and inequality that bedeviled the
national PTA in the 20th century. But
there are ways to address such con-
flicts. At the school level, especially in
diverse schools, leaders can work with
the PTO to ensure that the resources
it generates go to all students and that
more advantaged parents don’t wield
disproportionate power within the

school. They can name the issue as
one that has come up in other schools,
speak openly about the need to ensure
it does not happen at their schools,
and meet with the entire PTO or PTO
leaders when they think troubling
patterns are emerging. They can also
reach out to low-income parents to
make sure they know their contri-
butions are valued and important.

Finally—and most challenging,
but most important—school leaders
should create time and space to
address issues of power and privilege
as they emerge with respect to parental
involvement. Educators can create
forums at faculty meetings and PTO
gatherings, laying ground rules for
productive conversations.

At one school that is striving to
raise awareness about race and racism,
school leaders host parent nights fea-
turing guest speakers on topics such as
racial identity development or implicit
bias. The school has “normalized”
conversations around race with stu-
dents, teachers, and parents, making
it easier to discuss difficult issues
because community members already
have the tools to make such conversa-
tions work. Parents and educators can
agree that they are working to support
the children, but pretending race and
class do not exist or do not matter is
generally an ineffective strategy.

School leaders can take an active
role in encouraging PTO leaders—
especially middle-class parents in
racially and economically diverse
schools—to rethink their assumptions
that their actions are automatically

beneficial to all or that they alone
know what is best for the school.
Without dismissing the perspectives of
middle-class parents, leaders can con-
sistently ask questions about how all
students would be affected by a
particular decision.

School leaders can also prompt
PTOs in wealthy areas to explore the
possibility of redistributing a portion
of the funds they raise to less affluent
schools. This is a challenging issue,
but leaders can refer to the many ben-
efits that come from a well-educated
populace—and the profound costs of
one that is poorly educated—to make
a claim for education as a collective,
rather than individual, good. Col-
laborating with community leaders
who have strong equity agendas and
deep ties to the community (such as
religious or political leaders) could be
helpful in waging a broader campaign.

Expressions of Democracy
Whether members of the National
PTA or independent units, family-
school groups continue to be expres-
sions of democracy that give citizens a
means to be involved in education.
Parents, teachers, and community
members come together to support
schools, discuss and debate important
issues, and work toward a collective
goal. Such groups have been—and still
are—able to bring about change at the
local, state, and national levels and to
support professionals in raising the
standards in schools. Drawing on the
research we’ve conducted, we believe
the biggest challenge for such groups

PTOs embody at once the best of America—its faith in the
value of education and a better future—and the worst—
its tolerance for severe and longstanding inequality.

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A S C D / w w w . A S C D . o r g 69

is being inclusive and working to
eradicate inequalities. Of course, this
is not surprising, because PTOs are
profoundly American organizations.
As such, they embody at once the best
of America—its faith in the value of
education and a better future—and the
worst—its tolerance for severe and
longstanding inequality. Yet, as
expressions of our collective
investment in our children, PTOs have
within them the potential to chart a
new path, one that is both more
inclusive and more equitable. EL

1In this article, we use the term PTA
in reference to the national organization
or any of its local units. For other groups
not affiliated with the National Parent
Teacher Association, we use more generic
terms, such as parent-teacher or school-
community groups or organizations, or
PTOs for short.

Brown, C., Sargrad, S., & Benner, M.

(2017). Hidden money: The outsized role
of parent contributions in school finance.
Washington, DC: Center for American

Cucchiara, M. B. (2013). Marketing schools,
marketing cities: Who wins and who loses
when schools become urban amenities.
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago

Cutler, W. W. (2000). Parents and schools:
The 150-year struggle for control in
American education. Chicago, IL:
University of Chicago Press.

Goldstein, D. (2017, April 8). PTA gift for
someone else’s child? A touchy subject
in California. New York Times. Retrieved

Nelson, A. A., & Gazley, B. (2014). The
rise of school-supporting nonprofits.
Education Finance and Policy, 9(4),

Posey-Maddox, L. (2014). When middle-
class parents choose urban public schools:
Class, race, and the challenge of equity in
public education. Chicago, IL: University
of Chicago Press.

Reese, W. J. (2002). Power and the promise
of school reform: Grassroots movements
during the progressive era, 2nd Edition.
New York: Teachers College Press.

Woyshner, C. (2009). The National PTA,
race, & civic engagement, 1897–1970.
Columbus, OH: The Ohio State
University Press.

Christine Woyshner ([email protected] is professor and department
chair of teaching and learning and Maia
Cucchiara ([email protected]
edu) is associate professor of policy,
organizational, and leadership studies at
Temple University in Philadelphia. Follow
Christine on Twitter @WoyshnerC.

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