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NBC News Looks at the National PTA

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NBC News Education Nation wrapped up on Tuesday after three marathon days of panel discussions and other events in New York City.

Unfortunately for me, travel and my other beat (the U.S. Supreme Court, which is one of the few agencies of the federal government that has been open for business amid the federal shutdown) kept me from watching the live Webcasts. NBC says the various segments of Education Nation will be posted online by next week.

Meanwhile, on "NBC Nightly News" on Tuesday night, anchorman Brian Williams introduced a report about the National PTA and its new leader, Otha Thornton. He's the first African-American male to head the organization for parent and teacher involvement in schools, and he is on a mission to get more fathers involved in their children's schools.

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The NBC piece is a fairly straightforward look at the leadership change. But it reminds me of an Education Week story from nearly 20 years ago questioned whether the National PTA was "missing in action" as an effective voice on education issues.

Reporter Lonnie Harp noted in the story that with 6.7 million members, the National PTA was by far the nation's largest education group, dwarfing the combined membership of the two national teachers' unions.

But "in the midst of an education-policy debate badly in need of a reasonable voice and credible mediator, the group is largely silent," Harp wrote in the Sept. 28, 1994, story, "Who's Minding the Children?"  "State policymakers across the country confide that the PTA has nowhere near the clout of teachers' unions, school boards associations, and other education groups in influencing school funding, curriculum, and governance decisions. Washington insiders tend to agree."

While education policymakers were debating educational standards, school choice, and other controversial innovations, Harp continued, "the PTA has espoused bicycle-safety awareness and produced videotapes on social tolerance and communicating with teenagers."

The story didn't go over very well with the PTA. The organization prevailed on U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who was then the chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, to challenge the Education Week report in a letter to the editor.

The PTA's help was critical in battling filibusters over the passage of key legislation, including that year's reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Kennedy wrote. The group also helped defeat private school voucher amendments in federal legislation and helped draft strengthened provisions on parental involvement in the ESEA, he said.

"While one of the PTA's great strengths is the effectiveness of its local chapters in addressing local concerns, the organization plays a vital role on the federal level as well," Sen. Kennedy wrote.

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