It's not for nothing that a Tampa Bay area parents council has adopted the slogan "Not your momma's PTA." • The century-old organization is shifting its focus from the boosterism of recent generations back toward advocacy in light of what many consider an attack on public education. • Listen to Florida PTA president Jean Hovey, one of hundreds of officers from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties who attended a recent statewide convention at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor: • "Instead of raising $1,000 to buy toilet paper for our schools," Hovey said, "we can do better being on the steps of the Capitol in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., providing the information to our legislators so they know our schools need funding."
At 61, Hovey defies the old stereotype of the cookie-baking mom who does PTA in her idle time.
"I work for an attorney part time," she said. "I am a city commissioner (actually, she's deputy mayor of Winter Springs) and I'm the president of Florida PTA."
True to Pinellas' not-your-momma mantra, the organization is also reaching out increasingly to dads. The national PTA had its first-ever male president from 2009 to 2011 and will have another in 2013.
"Kids do better in school when their dads are involved," said Curtis Moreau, 38, of Tampa's Carrollwood suburb, also a statewide officer.
"And PTA is a good way for dads to show how interested they are in the education of their children."
A century of advocacy
Research has long backed Moreau's assertion that children win when their parents are involved in school. Some say those benefits are even greater when a father gets involved.
But for many years PTA was considered the domain of women — and in some eras, women of the leisure classes.
Its roots are quite the opposite.
Long before women could vote, they used PTA as a platform to fight the exploitation of children in the workplace. They took cigarette and alcohol marketers to task. They fought for fire extinguishers in the schools, and later for seat belts on the school bus.
Membership rose in the decades when it was customary for women to be full-time homemakers, then dropped as women flocked to the paid work force.
In states such as Florida, with limited tax revenues, PTAs became known as fundraising vehicles. A PTA serving an affluent school might sell enough high-end candy and holiday giftwrap to build a computer lab or an athletic pavilion. In a poorer community, the school was lucky to have a PTA at all.
But all that is changing.
"I've seen more and more, as each year goes by, the legislative part gets stronger," said Catherine Miller, 43, president of the Hernando County Council of PTAs. On the local level, she's looking into complaints about cutbacks in the bus system. She's trying to spread the word that parents can contact the PTA about other issues, too.
"A lot of parents, they don't approach the PTA because they think that once they start talking to you, you're going to reel them in and you're going to have them doing all these things," Miller said. "It's a trust issue."
In Pasco County, Hudson Elementary PTA vice president Kathi Roberts, 48, said that while fundraising exists, it's more likely to benefit a child whose parents have experienced foreclosure or unemployment. Or it might be an evening at a fast-food restaurant, which has the added bonus of bringing the community together.
In the decade since she joined, Roberts said, "It has taken a much needed circle around. It's more about families. We're still raising money, but it's more family involvement than, 'buy more candles.' "
Same reasons to join
Leaders say the reasons to join PTA haven't changed: It's good for your child, and it's good for all children.
Many of these reasons are equally true for organizations that serve private schools, which are often called PTOs (for parent-teacher organization), since PTA is a trademark.
"We advocate for all children, whether they know we're advocating for them or not," said Hovey.
Whether a child is in public or private school, she said, when parents join, "they're going to get a better knowledge of the school system. I don't want to say they have an in, but when they're at school, they know what's going on, which can help and benefit their child."
That holds true, leaders say, whether the child is an honor roll student or, as in the case of Charles Derexson's two sons, has learning difficulties. Today both sons, 19 and 20, are in job training programs, he said.
"We had struggling issues and that's why I wanted to be involved," said Derexson, an officer in both the state organization and the Pinellas council. "It would have been worse if I hadn't been involved."
'Back to the grass roots effort'
Derexson, 47, is encouraged by the new emphasis on advocacy, which has been promoted at the state and national levels.
"We are going back to the grass roots effort," he said. "We know that with the economic times, if we keep providing the extra financial support, those in Tallahassee don't have to, so they're not going to. We've got to get them away from that mind-set."
Specifically, Hovey said three issues top her organization's agenda.
Second: Accountability, particularly in light of state leaders' affection for charter schools and online education.
Third, she said, she wants lawmakers to be better informed about the work public schools are doing, and not punish them based on misinformation.
"I got a Department of Education press release in my e-mail and it said, 'FCAT scores continue to rise and our students continue to do better,' " she said. "So why do they penalize our teachers and our schools? Why?"
Closer to home, Moreau sees the benefits in the faces of the kids at school.
"When my daughter participates in her first field day, the tug of war, because I know about it, because I'm active, I'm there, getting to watch it," he said.
Then, he added, "It has less to do with my kid than every kid. I just don't see my daughter participating; I see all the kids participating."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.