Beyond the Bakesale: PTAs, Education Reform, & the Best of UHA 2014, Part 1

The panel on racial imaginaries in postindustrial Philly quickly got out of hand

Several times a year, the intrepid reporters of Tropics of Meta follow the academic conference beat, checking out panels on everything from the Illuminati to Asian American basketball leagues and sissy rap. At their best, conferences offer a window into the freshest and most innovative historical scholarship, and our reports on panels aim to give readers an early look at the groundbreaking articles and books of tomorrow.  This year’s Urban History Association conference was the organization’s eighth biennial meeting, and the world’s hardest working urbanists braved the persistent drizzle of “always sunny” Philadelphia to attend panels and plenaries on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.  To catch up on the sparkling wit and cutting-edge fashion for which historians are famous in equal measure, check out Walter Greason’s overview of the conference at Storify.

For our first installment of coverage, we’re looking at a wonderful Sunday morning panel called Schools and Neighborhoods since the Great Society, which was chaired by St. Joseph’s University’s Patricia Eget.  (As always, if we misheard any of the details or something just got lost in translation, please don’t hesitate to contact us at, and we will be happy to fix any errors in the post.)

Like Britney Spears, they’re not that innocent

Jennifer McPherson, “‘Growing up in Modern America’: The National PTA and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act” 

A doctoral student at the University of New Mexico, Jennifer McPherson is interested in urban education and women’s history. Her dissertation looks at Parent-Teacher Associations and the politics of parental authority in schools. “The PTA benefits from its amiable and nonthreatening image,” says McPherson, but the question is seldom asked: what does PTA actually do? The organization’s history is, in fact, much bigger and more intertwined with urban and social histories than casual observers might at first suspect. In fact, the PTA’s political role has often been shielded by the myth that it just does bake sales. The PTA was founded in 1897 as the National Congress of Mothers, and has historically advocated for a greater role for parents in schools and local control of curriculum and education spending. McPherson discussed the PTA primarily in terms of its complex internal politics and its interaction with federal education policy after World War II, notably with respect to the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka Title 1). ESEA was part of LBJ’s War on Poverty; it channeled new federal funds to schools (which had been traditionally been funded almost entirely at the local in the United States), aimed to narrow the achievement gap for poor students, and extended teacher training and professional development opportunities, among its many other components.

The PTA, surprisingly, opposed the ESEA in 1965. It had long maintained that public funding should only go to public schools, and the group feared that the Act would channel federal funds to private schools. The PTA was also concerned about how funds would be distributed, and whether local communities would control how they were used. The ESEA, of course, ended up getting passed anyway, despite the opposition of a group with 12 million dues-paying members in the 1960s (and as many 4 million more who did not pay dues). While the national PTA’s opposition did not succeed in killing the bill, McPherson contends that the fight still took PTA into new directions of community action and forced parents to contemplate what the federal government’s role in education ought to be. For decades, the organization had advocated for greater federal funds for schools, particularly in poor, rural areas, and it had collaborated with the federal government in programs for civil defense education during World War II and the Cold War. But the PTA had always stressed individual action in the home and community. Any federal imposition of control on local education was historically anathema to the PTA, which emphasized the importance of parents as actors in schools. The group also saw public education as “the basis of democratic society,” as McPherson put it, and worried that any support for private education would undermine the public system.

The presenter’s fascinating paper concluded by tracing how the PTA evolved in the 1960s and 1970s, as it threw its support behind the reauthorization of ESEA in 1967 (following the addition of benefits for library and counseling services, foster children, and so forth); the merger of the national PTA and the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers, an organization formerly based in the segregated South; and its collaboration with NAACP, ACLU, and numerous other organizations to defeat a tuition tax credit in the late 1970s, which would have allowed families to deduct $500 a year for private education. This controversial decision led the massive group to shed over 200,000 members, as more conservative local PTAs vented their outrage at what they perceived as an overly liberal national organization that was out-of-touch with the interests of local parents and schools.

detroit school closed ruins
School’s out forever

Leanne Kang, “Radical Education Reform in Detroit”

A doctoral student in Educational Foundations and Policy at the University of Michigan, Leanne Kang shed light on a poorly understood episode in the troubled history of Detroit Public Schools (DPS)—the period of mayoral control of city schools, which lasted from 1999 to 2005. Kang is interested in how school governance has changed over the last 30 years in Detroit, with implications for urban public education and school reform nationally. Her broader project, she said, looks at “one system breaking up,” i.e. how a huge urban school system fractured into a variety of public, private, charter, and other educational settings—including something rather discouragingly called the “Education Achievement Authority.” (Little Lebowski Urban Achievers much?) Whereas 80% of school-age children once attended DPS, only 46% did in 2011, and Detroit ranks second in the nation in terms of the proportion of students attending charter schools—behind only New Orleans, which has gone to a radical “all charter” system.

This excellent paper derived from Kang’s larger dissertation, zeroing in on a major turning point in the history of DPS, when years of declining enrollments, budget cuts and recurring deficits finally led to a dramatic policy shift: the replacement of the elected school board with mayoral control of the school system. In explaining the origins of this major shift, Kang stressed that the damage inflicted by Detroit’s decades-long fiscal crisis cannot be underestimated. In fact, the narrative of Motor City’s decline has become so overly familiar that the dizzying depth to which the city has sunk has almost become normalized in the public imagination. A passing look at the numbers tell a story of relentless decay: the city’s population dropped by over half since its 1950s peak, and with schools traditionally funded by property taxes, the terminal flight of residents and taxpayers had a devastating effect on school finances, with the system running 11 annual budget deficits in the 1970s and 1980s. The media routinely portray DPS’s chronic financial problems as a symptom of ineptitude and corruption, but Kang insisted that the problem must be understood as fundamentally economic and structural. DPS faced the problem of running a massive urban school system with declining revenues and vexed relations with one of the nation’s strongest teacher unions, which successfully resisted efforts to right the system’s budget by eliminating pay raises in the past. (The union’s power has been greatly diminished since.) Kang notes that several new school board members, dubbed the “Hope Team,” won election in 1998, seemingly with a mandate to reform the system, but relations with the Detroit Federation of Teachers quickly soured, and the Hope Team slate was turned out in the following election. As Kang pointed, Detroiters essentially voted for the old guard.

Not that voters lacked reason for discontent. They authorized a major bond referendum in 1993, yet five years later no construction projects for new or improved schools were under way. The sluggish pace of action sealed the impression that the board was inept—they appeared to get more money and yet did nothing. This created the opportunity for Gov. John Engler, a Republican, to move forward with a radical plan to turn over control of the schools to the mayor. Mayor Dennis Archer initially opposed the plan, but when Engler was reelected in 1998 and the GOP swept the legislature, he relented, seeing that the writing was on the wall. Kang argued that the existing literature underemphasizes the depth of voter discontent as well as Gov. Engler’s role in passing mayoral control; others have characterized battle over the schools as symptomatic of a racial divide, with a white state government imposing policies on a black city. According to the presenter, voters were actually open to the idea of the mayor taking control of schools—yet they voted to reinstate the elected school board in 2005. What happened?

Kang suggested that voters were okay with mayoral control in principle, but they had genuine fears about voting rights—i.e. their right to elect a school board and thereby influence the course of DPS. Counterintuitively, perhaps, she also argued that Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick picked just the right person, Kenneth Burnley, to serve as the new CEO of schools. The former head of the Colorado Springs school district, Burnley had grown up in Detroit and attended DPS. He was “one of their own.” He was popular with business and community activists, and struggled mightily to make good on the 1.5 billion bond, initiating many building projects. Burnley also took care to contract with black-owned local businesses. He negotiated a new contract with the DFT ahead of schedule, which was a fresh departure from the city’s recent history. But DPS continued to hemorrhage students, and with school funding tied to pupils, every family that pulled out of the system deepened its fiscal crisis. In 2004 Burnley announced a 2.7 million budget deficit, despite stating earlier in summer that the school year ended with DPS in the black; his team had underestimated student attrition. The system was forced to lay off hundreds of employees and close schools, and when voters got the chance to vote again on the mayoral takeover in 2005, 65% voted to bring back the school board.

Reform of the school board and urban governance clearly had failed to stop DPS’s steady slide—but why? Again, Kang credits deep structural trends and flaws in the system. The system’s condition declined no matter what reforms were undertaken, so long as Detroit lost jobs, residents, and ultimately school funding. Meanwhile, the state undertook policies to actively encourage alternatives to public schools, such as charters, which hastened attrition from DPS. Kang credits Gov. Engler and Republican lawmakers with pursuing a deep-seated ideological conviction that a “market of schools” would encourage competition and ultimately benefit all students; instead, it attenuated the fiscal and social foundation of the public system even further. The result, Kang suggests, were solutions such as mayoral control, which can be undemocratic and even authoritarian in nature. (Here one thinks of the dramatic takeover of Detroit by an emergency manager, appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder in 2013—although Kang did not explicitly make this comparison, the shoe certainly seems to fit.)


For more of ToM’s conference coverage, check out our ongoing series Academics in the Wild.  For UHA 2014, Part II can be read here, and Part III here.