Personal Philosophy: "If you want to see change, you have to get in there and work at it. You have to actively participate in whatever venture it is you feel needs attention."
Current Claim to Fame: First African American president (1997-98 term) of the 101-year-old National P.T.A., co-founded by William Randolph Hearst's mother Phoebe Apperson Hearst. "I guarantee you she never baked cookies to raise money."
Big Project: Bringing more urban parents into the P.T.A., personally targeting New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia, which have no P.T.A.s.
On Parental Involvement: "I have never met a parent who didn't want the best for his or her child. But some don't know the right way to go about it." 1. Realize you are the child's first and primary teacher. 2. Read to your child at an early age (before birth is good). 3. Set up an enrichment zone in the home that has books and magazines. 4. Get involved in your child's schooloffer to demonstrate skills (technology, cooking, whatever), get involved in school policy, and keep up with your child's day-to-day work.
Travel Profile: Sleeps in the air. "When that plane motor starts, I'm out." Allergic to hotel environments. Recently got a $50 ticket from a D.C. cop for not wearing her seatbelt in the back seat of a taxi. "I was too short to see the notice on the dashboard!"
Vacation Fun: Summering in Massachusetts and playing "The Stars And Stripes Forever" on her piccolo in a park band.
by Richard Wall
None of the out-of-towners in the Radisson hotel restaurant recognize Lois Jean White, lunching among them, as a major player in the national debate on education. Neither do any of the from-towners.
"What's that biblical saying about the prophet not being known in his own land? That's fine with me," says White, another laugh bubbling into her conversation. She likes to talk, and as president of the 6.5 million-member National P.T.A., she talks with some important people, such as Bill Clinton. "I've been to the White House several times, the last was for the Christmas party. It was a social time that was very nice," says the 60-year-old Knoxvillian. "I was in Washington, so I went with a member of my staffthey love to tag along with me to those kinds of things."
She has shared the podium with and introduced Hillary, Tipper, Billeverybody except Al. But she'll introduce him at the P.T.A. convention in Nashville this June. In her role as spokesperson for one of the nation's foremost advocacy groups for children, White is involved up to her short-shorn head in national initiatives.
She co-chairs the Department of Education's America Goes Back to School program with Tipper Gore, which encourages parental involvement. She's on the board of the national Character Education Partnership, which champions character-based education. Clinton appointed her to the President's Advisory Panel for Public Obligation of Digital Television. She's often quoted in the national media, was profiled in the March issue of Ebony magazine, and offered advice on the March 18 Leeza show on talking to children about such adult- rated news as murderous mayhem and Presidential sexcapades.
In the Radisson for this "Lunch with..." article, White relates that she interviews people about education for her own "Lunch With Lois" column in the P.T.A.'s magazine Our Children. She recalls as notable interviews Colin Powell and local poet and columnist Ina Hughes, White's favorite among all the others.
In her volunteer position as P.T.A. prez, she might put in up to 80 hours a week. "Last week was typical. I left Knoxville Sunday for the digital TV meeting in L.A., because the president of CBS who chairs the committee was tired of flying to Washington. Then I had to fly to D.C. on a red-eye for two days of meetings," says White, a fatigued expression reflecting her trek. "Then I went to Miami for a parenting conference, and then back to Knoxville." She usually spends about two days a week in town, though this week she had more time at home and could finally take down her Christmas decorations.
White gained most of her P.T.A. experience from 29 years of volunteering in the Knoxville schools her three children attended, primarily Chilhowee and Holston. "I've baked my share of cookies to raise money," she says. "But we don't like to be considered a fund-raising organization. Parents, students, and teachers shouldn't be responsible for raising funds."
Taking responsibility is a recurring theme in her life, one that took root from her grandmother, Rosa Barron, who raised White by herself in Nashville. As a child and as a college student at Fisk University, White's grandmother pushed her to do the right thing, from not being a snobby little girl to trying out fraternity parties.
The institutional slight of segregated schools didn't affect Lois Jean as much as it did other black children, because she was a musical prodigy. When the Nashville youth orchestra rejected her because her skin color wasn't up to standards, the New York Herald Tribune picked up the story and arranged for her to play with the New York City youth orchestra. Only recently did White retire as a flutist for 24 years in the Oak Ridge Symphony and as a private music teacher.
Her performance experience helps her not be flustered when going one-on-one with VIPs, leading meetings, or lobbying legislators on the Hill. That's part of the National P.T.A.'s threefold mission, which is to teach parenting skills, to support public education, and to advocate before legislative bodies and organizations that affect children's lives.
For example, White and the P.T.A. are trying to influence the tobacco settlement. Lobbying victories include an extension of the Family Leave Act to allow employees time off for attending school functions and convincing President Clinton to amend the Education America Act to include a parental-involvement provision. Another important P.T.A. win was helping convince Congress to reject a school voucher plan for Washington, D.C., schools. Other bills promoting vouchers and subsidization of private schools are being considered in Congress.
"We are ever on our guard about vouchers," White says of the initiative that gives public funds to people sending their children to private schools. "We oppose vouchers, privatization of public schools, and tax support for private schools."
She points out that using the logic of vouchers and tax revenues for private schools, people should get public funds when they hire a security guard for their condominium building. Older people with no children in school would be entitled to cuts in their property taxes, which fund education for someone else's kids. White believes all are wrong.
She says some companies have approached Tennessee state legislators about a voucher bill. "If a voucher system passed, I could see it as the demise of public education. It would be a blow to the country, and I don't think people would realize it until after the damage is done," says White. "Voucher proponents know how to play on the weaknesses of society, so they are saying this is the best thing for minority parents. It is not."
Her concern is that vouchers and privatization would lead to elitism and undemocratic education. Admissions could be restricted, and the best students would leave the public school. Where vouchers and privatization are in place, students' tests scores haven't been shown to improve, says White. There are other problems, like how do poor children get to the voucher school across town? (For example, $2.7 million dollars of the Cleveland, Ohio, voucher school program's deficit went to student taxi fares.)
Operating on a national level, White isn't familiar with all the details of the Edison Project's recent offer to take Knoxville's Maynard Elementary under its wing. But she knows how she feels about it. "Edison is a privatization of public schools; we would rather that money remain in public education," she says. "We can't guarantee what they will do with the school. Also, any business that wants to provide that service has an angle, and that is to make a profit."
Public education, says White, is a fundamental function of society and should be a community effort, not something bid out to a business. "I think people in Knoxville are getting to the end of their rope with schools and are ready to see some real changes now," she says. "There have always been gimmicks coming along like vouchers and privatization. But they never succeed. And they take the focus away from fixing the real problems of providing a good, public education for everyone."
Money, parental involvement, and professional development are the primary solutions. White says to make Knoxville schools top-notch, a funding increase of roughly 200 percent is needed. She knows it isn't going to happen unless parents and all members of the community advocate for such changes. That includes getting bills before the state legislature that increase funding by X amount for specific improvements and local P.T.A.s inviting county commissioners and others into the schools so they can see the problems.
"There's so much negative about public education these days. We're trying to tell the good things about it," says White. She knows there are deplorable public schools and spreads the blame evenly, from poor funding to off-putting and ineffective teachers to dull administrators to parental apathy. "But there are many blue-ribbon public schools in this country with very innovative programs utilizing technology, creating smaller class sizes, emphasizing professional development, encouraging parental involvement, and many other initiatives," says White. "We also have many schools that are making the best of their circumstances."
So what should come first, funding education or other community developments that promise a trickle-down effect? "Some say the two can go hand in hand, but I say no," says White. "Clean up the basics first, and education is a basic. An educated citizenry results in better health, less crime, smarter voters, and a vital community that will attract business. An uneducated citizenry might be devastated by a baseball team leaving, but that wouldn't bother an educated citizenry one bit."
Though frustrated by the "no new taxes" mentality that prevails in our political community, White says Knoxville public schools will improve and so will others across the country. "In order to do this kind of work, you have to be optimistic. If I felt it couldn't be done, I'd go home, sit down, and rock my youngest grandchild."