When Otha Thornton, 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 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 Thornton, who will become the National PTA's first male African-American leader next year.
By any measure, the PTA is one of the most venerable and iconic 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 `60s 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 under 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 this 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" to enhance the PTA's online presence.
Landers, of Germantown, Tenn., hopes these tactics will help cut costs while also enticing more parents to join.
"We're really trying to give our members the information they seek in a way they prefer," she said.
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 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," 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 Thornton and Landers say the PTA needs to be creative with new membership strategies, one change that's not on 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.
"Advocacy is really the heart of what we do _ we're seen as the go-to people on parent engagement," said 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.
"Any association that takes a stand, there will always be some members who disagree," Landers said. "Any stand we take is decided by membership ... It's not made by staff, not made in Washington. It's made by the grass roots."
For some parents, however, the PTA's advocacy work is cause for annoyance rather than pride.
"I don't feel the PTA's mission and our mission are the same," said Gary Parkes, 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 may seem modest _ they 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.
"I don't feel like we get anything from national or state to justify that expense," Parkes said.
Parkes said he and many other parents at Carmel Elementary would like to sever ties with the National PTA and form an independent PTO, but were told by the school district that this 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 become an independent PTO.
Nell Hurley, who was president of the local PTA at the time, said the group had been paying about $3,000 a year in total PTA dues, "and it just didn't seem like that was a real good use of our money."
They sought to avoid any legal challenge, even hiring a parliamentarian to be on hand during the vote to disaffiliate.
"There was a time when we really needed the PTA _ that was how we got information," 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. Hurley said the group was able to obtain a less costly policy from PTO Today, a private enterprise which provides an array of information and resource kits to parent groups.
PTO Today's founder, Tim Sullivan, declined to release financial information, but said he started in 1999 as a one-man operation and now had 34 employees.
Sullivan says the number and total membership of independent PTOs is hard to calculate, but he estimates that more than 85 percent of the nation's nearly 100,000 public schools have some sort of parent-teacher group. About 25,000 of the schools have PTA affiliates.
"Parents are still involved _ they're just not doing it as often under rubric of the PTA," said Sullivan. "If parents want to be part of a lobbying organization and make a political statement part of their mission, the PTA is a great place to do that _ but that's not for everybody."
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?
National PTA: http://www.pta.org/Index.asp
PTO Today: http://www.ptotoday.com/
David Crary can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/CraryAP