What have you done for me lately?

School is back in session.

I love school. I love the intellectual journey of school for myself. I love guiding my children into and through school. And I love the structure that the institution provides to our daily lives.

And with the fall and the structure comes the PTA Advisory Council Commitee. I’ve written about the PTA Advisory Committee in the past. Created in 1996 by a board action to encourage and address parent involvement, the PTA Advisory Committee provides a venue for information-exchange that is well-worth the 90-minute meeting downtown once each month. A benefit of PTA membership within Chicago, the PTA Advisory Committee is an opportunity for dialogue with those on-the-ground in CPS Central Office. Sure, sometimes I am frustrated by what I learn at the meetings. But the point is that I always learn something. PTA Advisory Committee is a tool for parent empowerment.

But here’s where I struggle: Because PTA is a dues-paying-member-based organization, the PTA Advisory Committee is a direct result of millions of dues-paying volunteers’ efforts, throughout the past 100 years, to advocate for all children. It is both a function of and a testament to the organization’s long-term history and voice.

Founded in 1897 by Phoebe Apperson Hearst (mother of William Randolph, in case you’re wondering why it sounds familiar) and Alice Birney as the National Congress of Mothers, PTA is a dues-based, member-driven organization. The dues are small – $4.25/year to Illinois and the national umbrella combined – and the work done to support the organization’s mission: to make every child’s potential a reality by engaging and empowering families and communities is performed by volunteers. I am one of those volunteers.

I am a volunteer, but I also pay dues. $2.00 to state, $2.25 to national, $5.75 to my local unit. For me, it is not a lot of money to spend in supporting the work of Illinois PTA to promote equity and advocate for children. In joining PTA each year, my $10 dues signal to The Boy, The Girl, and The Tot that I care deeply about them and their success. And it goes beyond them, but to their classmates at Disney II, to all public school students in Chicago, to all public school students in Illinois and across the country.

My dues go beyond my own children and my home unit. They do boring things like keep the lights on, pay for copier supplies and contracts, and fund the salaries of three staff members in the state office. But they also empower us all to do more for children. Over the years. PTA dues paid by members have helped:

And on and on.

But it seems to me that this mindset is unusual. In cash-strapped Illinois, everyone is chasing the same, increasingly scarce, tax dollars. (Unless you are privately funded.) Illinois PTA has seen a decline in overall membership. It operates on a shoestring budget to meet its mission. Local units, which have been invariably hit by declining state funds and increasing state mandates of where the allocated funds must be spent, are intent on keeping 100 percent of the funds raised to support their local schools. And so they are disassociating from the state umbrella, and reconstituting themselves as independent 501(c)3 nonprofits. Such focus can be a boon to an individual school.

But it’s also a loss for the students whose parents are unable to fund – or advocate for – the things their children need. And it’s a loss for Illinois PTA.

I struggle because, without the Illinois PTA, there will be no PTA Advisory Committee. But without the PTA Advisory Committee, I am missing variety in primary information sources about public education in Chicago. There is strength in numbers, but only if we concentrate it there.

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