PTAs Are Doing It Wrong


PTAs Are Doing It Wrong | Alamo City Moms Blog

Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) are doing it wrong. They spend too much time and energy on things that don’t matter for our kids’ education, and they leave out many of the people who desperately want to help.

PTAs spend too much time on things that don’t improve education.

Many PTAs hold elaborate fundraising events and enlist students to sell products to friends and family. This type of fundraising has gotten way out of hand. Maybe you’ve seen the form created by a North Texas PTA, with options like, “I am making this donation to express my appreciation for having nothing to buy, sell, or do except fill out this form.” The parents at that PTA are heroes for promoting this “just send money” approach. Fundraising events have a lot of overhead, and selling products is inefficient. My advice for parents: Don’t make your kids sell things door-to-door; just make sure they get their homework done and then let them play outside or read a book. Your coworkers and neighbors will thank you.

Bake sales are not worth your time. Cut the carbs and go straight for the pork: the Texas Legislature, I mean. Even a spectacularly successful school fundraiser is a drop in the bucket compared to the state’s biennial education budget of roughly $40 billion. Civic involvement is key to making an impact on education budgets and standardized testing. Register to vote, and vote in every election you can, including primaries, runoffs, and special elections. During legislative sessions, January through May in odd-numbered years, contact your representative and senator about issues that are important to you. Tour the capitol and visit their offices. Go to a rally. Attend school board meetings and neighborhood meetings of your city elected officials.

Does spending more money on education make schools better? That question sparked a lively discussion at the recent Outside the Lunchbox luncheon, hosted by The DoSeum and featuring Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way. Ripley’s book looked at studies comparing education systems around the world and found that the United States spends more money per student than most other countries, with merely average results. In the United States, a substantial amount of money is spent on classroom technology like smartboards and tablets. However, American students are being outperformed on international tests by students in many countries with low-tech classrooms.

Ripley presented another controversial idea, backed up by research. When you look at the parents who volunteered for their children’s extracurricular activities, you might be surprised to learn that their children scored lower on reading tests. Why? We all believe that parental involvement is a good thing. What seems to make the difference is how parents are spending their time. Fundraising and extracurricular activities do not seem to help.

So, what does help? Reading. Parents reading to their kids, parents talking with their kids about what they read, and kids seeing their parents read for pleasure. Ripley gets text messages reminding her to go to school fundraisers; she wishes the school would send reading tips instead. (Find reading tips in these Alamo City Moms Blog posts: summer reading, boys’ books, tween booksholiday books, and school libraries.)

PTAs should help create a culture that values learning. Many PTAs are already doing this by holding parent workshops on topics like math and science. But they could do a better job of signaling what’s really important. Parents have a limited amount of time every day. Before assisting with fundraising or extracurriculars, parents should make sure their kids do their homework. If needed, do extra drills on math facts or phonics. They should teach young children to tie their shoelaces, and take teenagers to college fairs. They should place reasonable limits on screen time and help their kids get enough sleep.

PTAs and parents need to stay focused on the mission of making sure that every student graduates with a strong grasp of the basics: reading, writing, and math. That may not be as much fun as planning a party, but it’s what really matters for our children’s futures.

PTAs create too many barriers for parents, especially working parents, who want to participate.

Signals matter. When PTA meetings are scheduled during the workday, it sends a message to working parents that they are not welcome. General meetings should be held after the workday. Period.

For planning meetings, try to accommodate working parents. Get together early in the morning—right after dropping the kids off at school—or over the lunch hour. Use online tools like Doodle for scheduling and Skype for virtual meetings.

To recruit volunteers, don’t just bring a signup sheet to the general meeting; use online tools like VolunteerSpot and SignUpGenius to include more families. Although some volunteer jobs need to be done on campus during the school day, other tasks can be sent home. For example, my daughter brought home a stack of construction paper for me to sort by color.

construction paper rainbow | Alamo City Moms Blog

Other tasks can be done by a working parent on a coffee break. For example, at my daughter’s school, a Kindergarten room parent used her work computer to make a beautiful flier for our next picnic; she has a full-time job in a design field.

In addition to working parents, PTAs should welcome dads. While researching this blog post, I learned about a wonderful organization, WATCH D.O.G.S. (D.O.G.S. = Dads of Great Students), that brings fathers, grandfathers, and uncles on campus for full-day volunteer shifts. Some employers grant time off work for WATCH D.O.G.S.

PTAs should be inclusive of diverse families of all races, ethnicities, and religions; of families with two dads or two moms; and of families with single parents, stepparents, grandparents, and adoptive parents.

I’ve written before about not letting money get in the way of friendships. Likewise, PTAs need to be inclusive of wealthy, middle class, and poor families alike. Debra Monroe, a writer who lives in Austin, wrote a chilling account of a PTA dominated by elite parents. You may have read about a school carnival in New York that excluded students whose families could not pay the $10 fee. PTAs should be inclusive, not exclusive. PTAs should not even charge membership dues.

Is there room for compromise? Yes. Here are my proposals for better PTAs:

  • Do a modest amount of fundraising, using the “just send money” approach of that brilliant North Texas PTA. Then, spend the money where it will have an immediate impact on morale (e.g., giving teachers gift cards to set up their classrooms, stocking the teachers’ lounge with coffee and snacks, and pooling funds for gift cards as holiday bonuses and teachers’ gifts).
  • Coordinate volunteers to help in the workroom with repetitive tasks, which will free up teachers’ time for academic planning.
  • Hold community-building events that have a low cost and are accessible to all (e.g., park playdates, picnics, potlucks, and parent-led field trips).
  • Bring parents together to learn about ways to help their children learn (e.g., curriculum workshops, parenting classes, and book clubs).
  • Organize community service activities (e.g., a shift at the San Antonio Food Bank or a park cleanup day).
  • Communicate by every available means: email, social media, and also paper fliers sent home in backpacks.

If you are currently a leader or member at your kids’ school’s PTA or PTO, or are thinking of joining, please take a long, hard look at what your organization is doing. Change can come from within. It’s important to create a culture that values learning complex academic material and is sensitive to all of our differences. This will provide our children the best chance to succeed in life—and really, isn’t that the point?

Inga is passionate about parent-driven education: helping parents be the best advocates for their children, finding the right schools (or homeschooling resources), and enjoying San Antonio's variety of arts and cultural events for families. She was born in California but has called Texas home since high school. She works part time as a lawyer and also blogs at San Antonio Charter Moms. Her eight-year-old son, F.T., and five-year-old daughter, G.N., attend a public charter school in the heart of the city. She married a techie and is a bit of a geek herself.


  1. The article itself is quite well-considered and doesn’t in any way attack PTAs in general. Several of the people who have a problem with it may be getting tripped up by the clickbait-style headline. (Headlines are customarily written by the editor and *not* the author, by the way, so don’t blame the author for them!!)

    I think if the headline had been “How to make the most of your PTA,” some of these responses might well have been different. The body of the article itself somewhat diffuses many of the criticisms I’m seeing in the comments section. (Many, but not all: there’s room for genuine disagreement in philosophies and approaches to school involvement.)

    On the other hand, you could just go all the way and headline the next one: “Jimmy Fallon Destroys PTAs With This Perfect Response”

    • Actually, on the advice of my editors, I actually toned down the title. As you can tell, I have strong feelings on this topic. Your clickbait title wins, hands down.

  2. Inga, you’re point is well made. Especially regarding the stats that say more money doesn’t necessarily equal success. I agree that each PTA ought to discern how they can support academics other than financially. And I agree that it ought to be the primary goal and IS a parents’ role. I’m also .grateful.for the PTA in North side that raised money to pay for all field trips!
    However, having been a parent for 23 years with 6 children in mostly public schools I believe the mentionwd in a previous comment. A public school PTA is part of a state organization which is part of a.national organization and as such may have bylaws it abides by and established roles it follows(?). I’m not certain of that because I was never very involved. I was too busy reading to my kids and making sure they did their homework to bed on time ?

  3. Inga, I think you are a brilliant woman and a loving mother. You remind me, some days, to use my other Museum memberships and not just our DoSeum Membership. I aspire to incorporate as much art and theater into my children’s lives as you do. I feel the same way you do on most topics but on this one we are, surprisingly, at opposite ends.

    I am the President of our PTG (Parent Teacher Group). We are a small private school where children have to pay tuition to attend. But, unlike most private schools, we enroll children who need to be there but who do not have the funds to pay. Our PTG helps sponsor around 10 children a year so they are able to come to our school. We also pay for and prepare staff appreciation lunches twice a year; we put on a staff appreciation week for an entire week at the end of the year. We include ALL staff in our outpourings of thankfulness because our Custodians, Admins and Assistants are just as important to us as our teachers. Every year we buy a book for every single child in our school as a Christmas gift from PTG. We held our first General Meeting (at 6pm) last week and before the meeting we had FAMILY READING NIGHT. Our next meeting is in November and before that meeting time, we will hold a family showcase. It would be sad if a family thinks, oh I will just miss this meeting and all of the support and information I could get from it, to stay home and read to my family. (We only have 3 meetings a year and if you read every single night, missed reading 3 nights a school year will not hurt.) We also give grants to whomever asks for money from within the school, if we think it will positively impact our children.

    We get all of this money from our one fundraiser a year. For the past 60 YEARS, our PTG has sold Holiday cards. We sell three Christmas themed designs and 1 general all occasion pack of cards. The artwork on each card is designed by our children. If we were to do away with this program a little piece of our history would die. We have sold cards since before it was the cool thing for other charities to do. We require the parents sell 15 packs or pay a fee. This is what makes all of the other things we do possible. You see, we do, do all of the things on your list of suggested ways to make PTA’s better.

    We are not perfect but we are far from the imperfection you are generalizing all PTA’s as being.

    We even banded together with other parents form other cities to get a HB on the Agenda in the last session and we did (!) but it died the next night. It was very near and dear to our hearts and a lot of parents from our school wrote letters, emails, and called our local reps offices to drum up support for our bill.

    I really wanted to write you to say that there are so many good things that come out of PTA’s, PTG’s and PTO’s, please don’t forget about those things. It is unfair of you to categorize us all into one neat little pocket. I know there are some bad apples, but that doesn’t spoil the whole crop. Thanks and have a good night.

  4. I think you offer great ideas here, and in my limited (pre-k arena) experience, I think parents ARE tired of being asked for money.

    As someone else wrote, I think an aspect of the PTA that should be enjoyed by families of the school is the opportunity to foster and build community through service. If you reach out to individuals who don’t have time to meet monthly or make the commitment to be on the board, there are ways for them to be involved in their child’s school (like your example of sorting construction paper).

    If it is only about fundraising, participation will be limited (IMO), no matter the flexibility provided for meeting times.

    Also liked the technology tips for ways to sign people up and push out information–will be sharing with my school’s committee to try out next year.

  5. There are very few articles on the mom’s blog that I find as frustrating as this one. As a former teacher, reading specialist and now PTA president at a Title 1 school it is ignorant to say that the ‘give us your money’ fundraiser is the best approach. Simple speaking, not all populations have the money themselves to just give their grocery money over to the PTA so that they can I turn give gift cards to the teachers. That is why most schools rely on outside sources fundraising to fuel their PTA’s.

    It should also be noted that although it is awesome if they can support academics, that primarily falls on the school’s purpose over that of the PTA (again, I am saying this as a former teacher and readin specialist). Whereas a big part of the PTAs purpose to provide community outside of school, something the school can help with, but it is not their primary objective.

    I guess overall, what I would say, is it sounds like you think YOUR PTA is doing things wrong for your population, but generalizing that PTA as a whole is doing it wrong can run a lot of very well intentioned, hard workingn, sacrificing parents the wrong way when you don’t have any idea what their schools situation is like or needs.

  6. Interesting article with some great ideas. PTAs that are affiliated with the Texas PTA must submit membership dues. These dues support the state and national level of legislative involvement. Just FYI why PTA charges dues.

  7. You have some great ideas, like getting involved with the community and learning workshops. I’m a stay-at-home mom and the Secretary on the PTO at my son’s school. We realize the frustration over too many fundraisers (but without them, we couldn’t pay for field day t-shirts or provide teachers with extra classroom supplies) and meetings held during the workday (but as Jennifer above said, not every workday happens during the day, and I would argue the after-school activities would hinder many parents from attending an evening meeting – not to mention the general evening chaos of homework & dinner!). This article makes me wonder if you have ever served on the board of your child’s PTA, or been a chairperson of a particular event (does your child’s school host a book fair? Consider being the behind-the-scenes person who coordinates the volunteers to work it, or helping set-up or take-down). There are many, many ways to get involved, and when you do you will realize how much the PTA does for the school and why they do things they way they do – instead of griping about how NOT to run a PTA, get involved and try to make changes for the better!

  8. Not all working parents work days, some work nights so having both day and evening meeting benefit both sides. Also, when you have small children leaving the house at 7:00 for a PTA meeting can be impossible.

    • You make an excellent point about busy evenings. If a family with small children has dinner together and spends a little time reading a book, then they deserve a gold star, and should not feel guilty for skipping an evening PTA meeting.

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