What do Socialists do at the PTA?

So, you’ve got the kid (or kids) and have learned to juggle political work, jobs, childcare and play dates. You have succeeded in keeping the kid(s) alive until school age. Now what do you do?

There is no playbook that I know of, but I will share some lessons that this Socialist family (which includes a 14 year old and a 7 year old) has learned over nine years of doing school and parent organizations.

Do a reality-check on messages about schooling, success and meritocracy

Most parents and others raising children want to do the best for them: making sure they are healthy, nurturing their talents and helping them to make a decent life. But the capitalist, patriarchal and racist culture we live in misses no opportunity to turn parents’ hopes against us, using guilt to sell us everything from toys to I-phones to summer camp. Every day we hear another version of the message: our failure to provide the latest toy, tech tool, accessory, camp or class will forever stunt our child’s development, wither budding talents and otherwise derail his or her chances for a meaningful, happy life.

Nowhere are these pressures stronger, or the guilt laid on thicker, than when it comes to schools. We are constantly reminded of how much is riding on our child’s success in school. The competitive pressure on our kids is worse than ever, intensified by “reforms” that test kids early and often.

"School" by Flickr user mvrckcoast

Most of us feel especially powerless in our children’s schools: they can be so hierarchical, so full of jargon (often in a language we don’t speak) and SO rule-based. Re-connecting to our own schooling through our kids’ experience taps into some vulnerable parts of ourselves. School reminds us of past academic failures or makes us feel ashamed of not having been to school much.

Nearly all of us were steeped in the myth of America as a ‘’meritocracy’—the one that raised up Abraham Lincoln, the “talented tenth,’’ or Sonia Sotomayor—in which school is the gateway to a lifetime of success. Many of us were also betrayed by that myth. We know firsthand that schooling is a double-edged sword; it consumes more working class people than it anoints. The belief that U.S. children grow up to be economically better off than their parents is central to the American Dream, even if again and again it is proven false.

For example, The Pew Charitable Trust “Economic Mobility” research program has found that children at both ends of the income distribution, rich and poor, are as adults likely to end up ‘stuck’’ in their parents’ class. An American born into the poorest fifth of the population has only a 17% chance of making into the upper classes in adulthood. And there is a clear racial component to mobility: white children are more likely to move up the ladder while Black children are much more likely to drop down.

Middle class status does not protect children of color from poverty in adulthood as it protects most white children: almost half of Black children whose parents were middle class end up poor as adults, while only 16 percent of white children do.  Almost 40% of middle class Latino children are also assessed as at ‘high risk’ of falling out of the middle class.

Ironically, parental income and educational levels are much stronger predictors of children’s economic status in the U.S. than in the rest of the industrialized world. Pew also found that it is easier to climb up the economic ladder in the “old world” (Europe) and in Canada than in the U.S., the ‘land of opportunity.’

Those few poor and working class kids who make it through the funnel of academic success face a different kind of betrayal and fear: they are warned that they must reinvent themselves, sever the ties to their communities and not look back.

Don’t get isolated; we need to build educational islands for all of our kids, not individual lifeboats.

There is an amazing amount of pressure on families with children to retreat into their own four walls. Building community takes time, and families don’t have a lot of time. Most of us work shifts and trade off child care (and often elder care, too) with the other adult or adults at home. A lot of us piece together multiple jobs. If you live in a dense urban area like I do, there aren’t a lot of public spaces for families to spend time together. Language can be a huge barrier (Spanish, Portuguese, Haitian Creole and Nepal, as well as Boston and Caribbean English, are some of the many dialects spoken on our playground).

Yet somehow, despite all the pressures, our kids push us to connect. While they play together, we share food, rides, remedies, information and friendship. We weave a web of mutual support and trust around, and through, our children.

When it comes time for school, most Socialist families I know send their kids to neighborhood schools in the working class communities where we have chosen to make our lives. Rooted and connected this way, we need and want to follow the progress of all the neighborhood kids we have fed, hugged and gotten to know, as much as we need to know what is happening with our own kids. Our community school is where we all come together, where it’s about all of our children.

“School shopping” no longer seems like a real solution. Picking the prettiest building or the school with the highest scores is the kind of individual “lifeboat” solution that we know won’t work because it won’t work for our neighbors’ kids too. So we do what we must: make the island we need from the neighborhood school we’ve got.

Be clear that public schools, however flawed, are still worth defending.

Schools embody a lot of contradictions. In school most of us meet friends and learn useful things like reading, math and how to fit in fashion-wise (or not!). But we also get labeled and dismissed, and get indoctrinated as worker-drones and diligent consumers.

At the same time, with schools at the bull’s-eye of the target that neoliberals have slapped onto everything public, it is more critical than ever to defend public education. As with most reform struggles, we are trying to protect the current system, which is vital to our lives, from being dismantled until we can build a fundamentally different and better one.

Another Socialist parent and former teacher, Joe Navarro, offers this analysis of how assaults on public schools are rooted in capitalism:

A trend began to take root in American education, which in the name of reform, assumed the character of a business model in schooling.  This trend also became known as the standardization movement.  While arguing that we (in the most economically, scientifically and militarily powerful nation on earth) were not competitive with the rest of the world, the “reformers” painted an apocalyptic picture of the U.S. education system.  This opened the door for capitalists from the National Business Roundtable, National Chamber of Commerce, Bill Gates and others to redirect education.  They used their money and influence to reform the education system based on running schools like businesses, encouraging charter schools to be run by not-for-profit businesses, promoting vouchers to take money from public schools to be spent on private schools, which ultimately were efforts to undermine public education. . .

The quest for quality teaching has been replaced by the quest for best test scores.  Scripted lesson plans, rote memorization, English-only education, drill and skill instruction and overzealous test preparation now dominate teaching.

"Back to School" by Flickr user tabor-roeder


If you have kids entering school, you will need a crash course in the strong, proven correlation between test scores and a) parent income; b) having English as a first language, and c) little else.


Trust that responsible parents can (and do) enroll their kids in schools with low test scores.

Nurturing your child’s brain, talents and spirit does not mean enrolling them in the school with the highest test scores; in fact, for most of us, it means the opposite.

Like most urban districts, our city’s school system offers families a range of elementary school options that coalesce into an ugly mess of race, class and linguistic segregation. Nearly all middle income families (most of them white, a few mixed ethnicity) enroll their children in one of the magnet schools that advertise “progressive” programs, or in a neighborhood school in the higher income neighborhood where they live. Even in a city where two thirds of the students are low income, two thirds are people of color, and the majority of students have a first language that is not English, we have some schools that do not at all reflect these demographics. I am told that high schools look a little different—although still highly segregated—and we will learn more next year when we get there.

Our kids’ elementary school reflects our neighborhood: almost 90% of students are low income, over 80% are students of color (mostly immigrants and U.S.-born children of Salvadoran, Brazilian and Haitian immigrants), and 75% speak a language other than English at home. And yes, our test scores reflect this, too. Our school rarely makes “Adequate Yearly Progress,” as required by the Federal “No Child Left Behind’ legislation, and parents get scary letters every year warning us about this.

"Concert" by Flickr user aidanmorgan

And yet, many of us agree that our school is a “small miracle” that goes a long way to live up to its motto: “Every Child Can Succeed.” Our teachers are mostly very skilled and dedicated. Many are bicultural and bilingual, and quite a few live in the neighborhood. We get meeting notices in all of our languages and every meeting has interpretation and childcare. School concerts are joyous, with hard-working parents taking a break from hard, dirty jobs to watch their kids play the violin or trumpet (every child gets free lessons and a rent-free instrument from the third grade on). Our school offers one of the state’s few remaining bilingual programs, so my 8th grade daughter can write essays in Spanish and translate when my Spanish reaches its limits, and her Salvadoran friends have kept alive their native language and can talk and write to family.

That said, even small miracle schools don’t work equally well for everyone. Parents who are English speaking, college educated or light skinned still too often get acknowledged first or listened to more. Most parents of kids with disabilities and special needs still have to do daily battle for their children.

Be prepared to spend a LOT of time talking with your kids about school, getting their perspective on what is happening to them and others, processing some things and countering others.

If you have gotten through the first five or six years, you are used to working hard to understand how your child is interpreting the world. Be prepared for this to intensify to something like a full-time job when your child enters public school. You probably expect to help with homework, commiserate about bullies and even to counter some archaic gender roles. You may anticipate that besides being targeted or marginalized for all the usual reasons (the wrong clothes, looks, phones) your kids will get extra harassment because of the weird things your family does and believes. You may have heard about the need for annual Columbus Day and Thanksgiving debunking.

But there is a lot of water in that fishbowl you are throwing your kid into, and it takes a lot of churning to help you both understand it and feel okay about it. Steel yourself for middle-school, when your kid may feel deeply misunderstood for months or even years, and for heartbreaking talks about jail, suicide and deportations (not news to any of you teachers, but a shock to the rest of us). Prepare to be accused of “experimenting on” or “sacrificing” your child to your politics (accusations that will keep you awake at night when they come from your parents or siblings, or even from your child). “Processing” school with your kids is a lot of work, but is usually enlightening, sometimes fun and often makes you proud.

You will need to find or make places to have these ongoing conversations about school with other parents.

Back to the misleading title: it is unlikely that the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) will be the place where parents in your community can build power together. While PTAs can be a force for good things like field trips, clothing drives and Dr. Seuss day (early on, they even fought for child labor laws in many states), PTAs must answer the demands of school systems and of their own state and national organizations. And some PTAs have an ugly face, excluding many parents by holding English-only meetings, or otherwise discouraging participation by immigrant parents, families who live in public housing, or LGBT families.

Part of what Socialist parents do, then, is to assess the situation and the possibilities of different types of parent organization.

That’s doesn’t mean that school or parent organizing is the main type of work we do in our communities (it isn’t mine). In nine years as public school parents, we have been part of three different waves of parent organizing but we helped start only one of them. The first wave had very limited goals: to organize family potlucks and language classes, and to raise money for class activities. The second wave, the one I pushed for, came together to protest a 2-year delay in rebuilding our burned-down school.

Yet I am most enthusiastic about the third wave, which was initiated by younger parents (who, as my teenager wisely observed, have more hope for change than those of us who have been in the system longer). This wave of organizing is committed to building strong outreach and grappling with the issues our kids and their teachers face: declining test scores and threatened sanctions, disappearing budgets, attacks on the bilingual program, a proposed charter school.

This group, while new, has the potential to be a place where we can figure out the system alongside other parents, where we can support each other and fight together for our children, often in solidarity with their teachers. Stay tuned and stay strong!

Additional Resources:

Rethinking Schools (another great resources for progressive and left families who are trying to make sense of school)

FairTest.org: Identifying Successful Schools for Low Income and Minority Group Students

This post is also available in: Spanish

About Mary Jo Connelly

Mary Jo Connelly is a member of Freedom Road Socialist Organization who lives in Somerville, MA. For over thirty years she has worked a lot with groups that are trying to win and/or improve jobs, although life in an immigrant city has brought her into many other kinds of organizing as well. Mary Jo would much rather help plan actions than potlucks.
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