Troubled Waters: PTA Bureaucrats Silence Reform Efforts

Last fall, Montgomery County activist Sylvia Fubini established a committee within the Montgomery County Council of PTAs to examine serious school-reform ideas – school choice, charter schools and so forth. In other words, she proposed the sort of debate the educracy generally goes to almost any lengths to avoid. Ms. Fubini’s plan got off to an encouraging start. MCCPTA President Sharon Cox even appeared to bless the effort. That is, until it became apparent that Fubini planned a meaningful series of discussions. In a move reported in the Montgomery Journal and the Washington Times,1 Ms. Cox pulled the plug on Fubini’s enterprise. The rationale was that Ms. Fubini had not secured permission from the executive committee of the MCCPTA. Fubini says this is nonsense. We note that MCCPTA has yet to give approval to the meeting. Below is Sylvia Fubini’s story in her own words.

I have been involved with reform efforts in the Montgomery County Public Schools from the time my children entered the school system, almost 13 years ago. I created a day-care center, bought play equipment, started a lunch-ticket program, helped to get an incompetent principal transferred – never fired, a near impossibility in the public schools – and co-headed a reform effort at our local high school, which added an international baccalaureate program to the curriculum. Each effort took immense energy and often was accompanied by strong resistance from the central administration.

A Myopic Assumption
In the process, I reached an epiphany. I tired of rolling the reform “rock” uphill over and over again, only to see it rumble back down again. I realized that I had myopically assumed that, since school systems were structured to work with and educate children, they would function differently and more flexibly than other bureaucracies. In fact, they do not. Like all bureaucracies, the school systems of this country are mired in maintaining the status quo, limiting accountability and protecting administrative and teaching jobs and salaries. I thought I would share my thoughts with you. Perhaps you have had similar experiences.

My new revelation has awakened me to the need for dialogue in Montgomery County on systematic reform alternatives – such as vouchers, charter schools and site-based governance. These have received much more attention in other parts of the country than in Montgomery.

With this in mind, last fall I asked the president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent/Teacher Associations (MCCPTA), Sharon Cox, to set up a program within the PTA to address such issues. Her reaction was positive. She asked if I would be willing to chair an education-reform committee within MCCPTA to address my concerns, if her executive board gave its approval. I said I would be glad to serve in that capacity. The executive board approved the committee with a mandate to research the issue of educational reform.

The reform committee’s makeup included several long-standing members of the MCCPTA, a group of young women from the Wheaton area who had tried unsuccessfully to start an alternative elementary school, a politically active parent in Gaithersburg new to the school system, the head of the Montgomery County teachers’ union (MCEA)2 and a teacher from a down-county high school.3 Although there was a clear split among the membership, we decided at our first meeting to start the dialogue by planning a public forum on educational reform at the end of October, 1997.

To widen participation, we distributed fliers to all PTA heads throughout the country, inviting all interested parties to participate, including parents, teachers, administrators, community leaders and even the press. We planned to have a series of speakers and then have a sign-up sheet for people who were interested in our committee. We saw this forum as just the first of several to be held throughout the county to start educating people on the reform alternatives being discussed in the media.

After the fliers were mailed, I began to get a hint of troubled waters ahead. An MCCPTA member who had been at my first committee meeting called to object to the fact that I was having an open forum. She said that I had not followed the MCCPTA’s procedures, that I should have gone to its executive board to have my plan for the year approved before undertaking such a gathering. I also got a call from Sharon Cox expressing outrage. She said I had overstepped my authority and that she was considering canceling the meeting (which was to be held at the offices of the Montgomery County school system).

Troubled Waters
Around this time, I happened to be speaking to the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, Jeanne Allen, who suggested that I get in touch with the managing editor of the Montgomery Journal, Mark Tapscott, to talk about our efforts. Mr. Tapscott was very responsive and immediately had his reporter, Madelaine Burka call me when I faxed him the information about the forum. She wrote a front-page article giving the basics about the forum; I thought it a very balanced piece.

Immediately thereafter, things began to heat up. Sharon Cox called me at home and at the office saying that she was canceling the meeting. She asked for my resignation, saying that without it I would not be able to speak for my committee before the executive board. Needless to say, I never tendered my resignation. The meeting was canceled and wiped off the MCCPTA’s and the school system’s calendars, although several school-system administrators and PTA members had indicated plans to attend.

Our plight made headlines in the Montgomery Journal and even rated a story in the Washington Times metro section. But the meeting remained canceled and we were shut out of every attempt to reschedule it. Sharon Cox said that the executive board was going to reconstitute the committee under the executive board’s auspices, but I have not heard anything further.

Besides accumulating a file full of clippings, I have learned from this experience just how difficult effecting real systematic reform will be in a suburban setting, particularly in a very large centralized system. Suburban schools are generally not as bad as urban schools, so business and political leaders are loathe to get involved or to waste political capital in pushing reforms. The large, centralized nature of the system makes it less accountable to parents. Activist parents will always be outnumbered by bureaucrats with large salaries whose one mission is to support the status quo.

Affluent parents, who might be expected to be vocal on the need for reform instead throw in the towel, sending their children to private or parochial schools. Parents who cannot afford this option or who want an alternative experience for their children, for secular or religious reasons, are home-schooling their children. Either way, the result is fewer public-school parents to push for change. The school administration, the teachers’ union, the PTA, the school board – all remain symbiotically linked with the twin objectives of limiting real parent involvement and discouraging system reform.

Sadly, in Montgomery County, reforms may have to wait until the schools perform even worse that they already have been. Perhaps this is what it will take for the political and business communities to get involved. Until then, dissent is stifled.

Ms. Fubini is a Montgomery County parent of two.

End Notes
[Top] 1. See Susan Ferrechio, “PTAs Refuse Venue for Member’s Forum,” Washington Times, October 29, 1998, p. C5; editorial, “Why Stifle Dissent?” Montgomery Journal, November 3, 1997, p. A4.

[Top] 2. I.e., Mont. Co. Education Association.

[Top] 3. “Down county” refers to that part of Montgomery Co. closest to Washington.

Posted in: Education, News Series