California PTA Sets Back Parent Engagement Efforts In State

Each day, as a teacher and as a strong proponent of parent engagement in word and deed,  I find myself more amazed by the actions being taken by the California PTA this election season. I don’t think I’m overstating it to suggest that their efforts this year will be used as a case study in political organizing and in political science classes for years to come — in how not to become politically engaged. If you had to make a list of most of the major mistakes a community-based group could make in a political campaign, the California PTA has managed to make a huge percentage of them.

And, by doing so, they have set-back parent engagement efforts in our state dramatically.

I’ve written quite a few posts already about their entanglement with billionaire Molly Munger and their pushing her doomed-to-fail ballot initiative instead of joining forces with Governor Brown and every major education group in the state to support an education initiative much more likely to succeed.

A new poll out this week shows that the Brown initiative still has a chance to pass, while support for the Munger/PTA initiative is dropping like a lead balloon. It would be surprising if it reached 40% “yes” vote on election day.

So what are the mistakes the California PTA has made?

First, allying yourself with a mercurial billionaire’s idea is never a good idea — the power imbalance is inherent in that kind of relationship. Once a group comes up with an idea and a plan, you can certainly take money to support it, but at least you “own it” and can plan a campaign around it so that it builds your organization’s long-term capacity. Once a billionaire comes up with an idea, it’s a pretty safe bet that he/she is always going to believe it’s theirs. Their self-interest is not going to be the long-term health of your organization.

Second, understand that once you get directly involved in any kind of public life, the name of the game is compromise — the “half a loaf,” not “half a baby” kind. When the Governor unveiled his initiative, the leaders of the California Federation of Teachers, who were sponsoring a competing one, cut a deal with the Governor to make changes in his initiative and drop theirs. That was the point of maximum leverage for the PTA — they could have made a deal with the Governor about specific support of parent engagement efforts — whether the initiative passed or not. Even if they could not have brought Munger along with them, at least the withdrawal of their support for her initiative would have removed a veneer of political respectability from it. And, if the Governor’s initiative passed, the PTA could have helped take credit for it. If it didn’t pass, the Governor and the Democratic leadership (in an overwhelming Democratic state) would have still remembered it. But, no, the PTA didn’t make a deal.

Third, the upcoming overwhelming defeat of the Munger/PTA initiative demonstrates how little political power the PTA actually has (if they had joined in with the Governor, that could have been masked) — you never go to the ballot unless you’ve got a very good chance of winning precisely because of this situation.  Remember the old organizing adage, “It’s not how much power you have, it’s how much power they think you have.” One of two things are now going to happen:

* The Governor’s initiative will eke out a win, and the PTA will have zero political leverage for years to come, or….

* The Governor’s initiative will lose, the PTA will become a scapegoat for its defeat, and it will have zero political leverage for even longer. I happen to believe that, even though having the PTA/Munger initiative around didn’t help, if the Governor’s initiative loses it will be due more to some mistakes made in its political campaign. However, just as people remember Al Gore’s defeat as more due to Ralph Nader than his inability to win his own native state of Tennessee, the PTA and Molly Munger will be thought of and remembered as the reasons for Prop. 30′s defeat.

If I were the California PTA”s leadership, I’d fall on my swords (figuratively, of course) immediately and use this fiasco as an opportunity for new leadership to make apologies, rebuild bridges, and radically reshape the organization.

Perhaps those actions could hasten parent engagement efforts being supported — by policy and funding — in our state capitol.  At least by a few years……

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