When Otha Thornton, the president-elect of the National PTA, signed up to help lead the PTA at Maryland’s Meade Senior High School in 2005, the chapter had about 25 members. Within two years, membership soared to 400 as the suburban Baltimore school community mobilized to boost morale and academic performance. Now, he’s trying to rekindle that spirit on a larger scale as the PTA strives to reverse a steady decrease in its national membership.
“I tell parents: ‘Other people are making choices for you and your children. We need you at the table,’ ” said Mr. Thornton, who will become the National Parent Teacher Association’s first male African-American leader next year.
By any measure, the PTA, whose national headquarters are in Alexandria, Va., is one of the most venerable of America’s volunteer-based nonprofits. It was founded in 1897 as the National Congress of Mothers and at its peak in the 1960s claimed about 12 million members.
Membership plummeted in the late 1960s and 1970s, in part because of the racial rifts caused by school desegregation, then stabilized. But it has dropped steadily over the past 10 years from about 6 million to less than 5 million.
Demography is part of the reason: Compared to the PTA’s heyday, there are many more single parents and working mothers now who feel they can’t spare extra time for engagement at their children’s schools.
But the PTA’s shrinkage can’t be explained only by such factors, given that parents are active at tens of thousands of schools in independent parent-teacher organizations not affiliated with the PTA. Factors driving the trend include frustration with having to pay state and national PTA dues and disenchantment with the PTA’s role as a vocal advocate on such issues as charter schools, juvenile justice, and home schooling.
“We’re still strong, but it is a concern,” the current national president, Betsy Landers, said of the membership decline. “We’ve chosen to try to attack it in several different ways.”
One initiative involves expanded use of social media. Members are being kept up to date via podcasts on National PTA Radio, some meetings and training sessions are being conducted through Skype, and members with expertise as bloggers or tweeters are being recruited as “social-media ambassadors.”
Ms. Landers, who hails from Germantown, Tenn., hopes such tactics will cut costs and draw more members.
“We’re really trying to give our members the information they seek in a way they prefer,” she said.
Mr. Thornton, a retired Army colonel who now works as a senior analyst for General Dynamics in Georgia, said other membership-boosting strategies include encouraging urban parents to be more involved in their local schools, expanding outreach to rural schools, and training a new wave of leaders from minority groups.
For Mr. Thornton, 44, his PTA mission is intertwined with his family history—a Georgia family that refused to let borderline poverty derail the quest for college education.
“Education was a way out,” Mr. Thornton said. “When I had kids, it was very important for me to be involved and be sure they got the best education possible.”
While PTA leaders say they need to be creative with new membership strategies, one change that’s not in the cards is any backing away from the PTA’s role as lobbyist on behalf of children and public schools. Among many causes over the years, it has campaigned for better nutrition in school cafeterias, fought to sustain arts programs, called for more empathetic treatment of juvenile offenders, and voiced wariness about school vouchers and for-profit charter schools.
Network of Lobbyists
“Advocacy is really the heart of what we do—we’re seen as the go-to people on parent engagement,” said Ms. Landers, who’s been active in the PTA since 1989.
She said the PTA’s full-time lobbyists on Capitol Hill are reinforced by a vast network of members nationwide who, when mobilized by email, will contact their own members of Congress.
“I don’t feel the PTA’s mission and our mission are the same,” said Gary Parkes, the president of the PTA at Carmel Elementary School in Woodstock, Ga. “Parents think they’re joining to be involved with the kids at their school, and they’re really becoming part of a massive political action committee.”
Annual dues are another source of disgruntlement. The individual dues for National PTA membership were increased last year, for the first time since 2001, from $1.75 to $2.25, but the total rises when state and district dues are added.
Mr. Parkes said he and many other parents at Carmel Elementary would like to sever ties with the National PTA and form an independent parent-teacher organization, but were told by the school district that would not be allowed.
In Fairfax, Va., resentment over dues was a factor when the PTA at Woodson High School voted two years ago to disaffiliate with the national organization and create an independent group.
Nell Hurley, who was the president of the local PTA at the time, said the group had been paying about $3,000 a year in total PTA dues, but that members did not think it was worth the investment.
“There was a time when we really needed the PTA—that was how we got information,” Ms. Hurley said. “Now, we have the Internet. ... We can get all the information we need at our fingertips.”
For the Woodson parents, one consequence of severing ties with the National PTA was losing PTA-provided insurance. The group obtained a less costly policy from PTO Today, a private enterprise based in Wrentham, Mass., that provides resources to parent groups.
PTO Today’s Founder Tim Sullivan said he started in 1999 as a one-man operation and now has 34 employees. He estimates that more than 85 percent of the nation’s nearly 100,000 public schools have a parent-teacher group. About 25,000 of those have PTA affiliates.
Ms. Landers accepts that some parents won’t buy into the PTA mission. But overall, she believes PTA leaders can reverse the membership decline by stressing the need for a collective voice on behalf of public education at a time of belt-tightening and budget cuts.
“We have a generation of children who deserve a high-quality education and a safe, healthy childhood,” she said. “If we don’t band together and fight for it, what does the future hold for us?
A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as National PTA Seeks to Reverse Decline in Membership