"PTA participation gives us the courage, confidence and collective voice to confront the most pressing issues, like school violence or funding [cuts], that are preventing our children from reaching their true potential," Thornton told hundreds gathered for the opening session of the Utah PTA Leadership Convention at Brigham Young University on Thursday.
In all, about 1,600 Utah PTA members are expected to attend the two-day convention this year, said Utah PTA president Gainell Rogers, whose term expires this year.
Thornton spent much of his speech talking about the power of parents to spark change, citing the National School Lunch Program and universal kindergarten as examples of programs for which the PTA advocated.
The challenges he addressed, however, are ones with which the Utah PTA is familiar.
Utah PTA leaders said in the fall that membership here has fallen by about 2 to 3 percent a year, a slip they attribute to busier lifestyles and other factors. Also, some schools have switched in recent years from PTAs to PTOs (parent teacher organizations), which are independent groups, politically and financially.
It's a switch that some claim is driven partly by political anger toward the PTA.
"There's been a campaign against PTA saying that we're so liberal, that we stand for things that Utah values don't, which isn't true," Rogers told The Tribune after the morning session. "We have to do a better job of saying who we are and what we are."
Rogers said the PTA only urges what's best for children and only advocates for positions on which its membership formally votes.
She cited a bill passed this year to prevent Utah drivers from smoking in cars with children, an increase in per pupil spending and the governor's veto of a bill that would have scaled back sex education last year as the types of issues on which the Utah PTA has pushed.
"Other parent groups that are out there, they may meet the needs of a particular school, but we meet the needs of all children," Thornton said.
In coming months, the PTA plans to run a series of positive ads, produced for free by a marketing company and partly funded by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, Rogers said.
As part of the opening session Thursday, Deondra Brown, of the classical crossover musical group 5 Browns, also gave a keynote speech on the importance of preventing sexual abuse of children. Brown started speaking about the topic after her father, Keith Scott Brown, was convicted of abusing his daughters and sentenced to prison.
Brown spoke of the emotional suffering she and other victims of sex abuse endure. She asked parents to remind their children that they can talk to them about anything and that it's OK to say no to adults who make them uncomfortable. She asked parents to work to recognize, resist and report child sexual abuse.
"I try to share some of my personal experiences, but almost more importantly, for me, is to show people there is life after it. You can still work through it and go on to have wonderful, happy memories and good times," Brown said. "I'm just hoping to kind of highlight the issue and hopefully people will continue to talk about the subject because the more they talk about it the more we can help."