Social commentary was a strong component of the Simpson’s from the very beginning, but no episode skewers the roles parents, teachers, and administrators play in Springfield’s seemingly only school better than “The PTA Disbands.” The episode begins with the Springfield Elementary School bus making its way down a rural road toward a Civil War battle site. Within just a few seconds, we see a broken bumper creating sparks on the asphalt, a gaping hole threatening to swallow Millhouse and Bart alive, several cross-eyed children choking down exhaust fumes, and principal Skinner instructing the children to use their clothes as drag parachutes.
When “The PTA Disbands” first aired in 1995, it was likely exhausting to watch. The satire here is packed tightly into the 22-minute run time, leaving little room to digest a joke before the next one arrives. By the time the bus reaches Fort Springfield, the writers have already covered inadequate school funding, privatization of heritage sites, and the poor treatment of public employees. After the children are run out of the fort (R.I.P Ooter), tensions between Ms. Krabappel and Principal Skinner begin to heat up. A discussion about missing children and penny-pinching on the bus transitions to an argument in the cafeteria – where cartons of malk and meat blended with newspapers and gym mats are being served – about funding for teacher supplies.
The battle brewing here between the teachers and the administrators has no real antagonist or protagonist. Krabappel’s examples of the school’s lack of funding, including a ‘banned’ book titled “The Theory of Evolution,” are persuasive, but even if Skinner agreed with her point, he doesn’t have the resources to meet her demands. Eventually, the teachers are frustrated enough to start organizing. After a rally outside the school, which includes some meddling from Bart, the teachers go on strike. The writers are concise in their commentary here: educational failures in our society are not the fault of teachers or principals. Who’s to blame? As the community tries to work together to find out how to deal with the teacher strike, the answer becomes clear.
Before the titular part of “The PTA Disbands” arrives, chaos ensues in Springfield as the children become restless as a result of the strike. Each kid, except for Millhouse, approaches the lack of structure uniquely. Lisa soothes her anxiety by creating a mock school setting in the Simpson’s house and creating a perpetual motion machine, Jimbo enjoys soap operas with his mother, and Bart disrupts order within the community in devilishly clever ways. His ability to create a run on the banks in just a few seconds is one of the highlights of the episode.
When Marge gets creeped out by Bart’s nighttime kite flying and Homer refuses to let Lisa disobey the laws of thermodynamics, it’s finally decided that the PTA needs to do something about the strike. As the meeting starts, it’s quickly apparent who’s to blame for this entire mess. Everyone is in favor of giving the teachers what they need to create a positive future for the children, but no one wants to pay for it. Krabappel’s and Skinner’s arguments eventually devolve into single-word sentences and hand motions as the parents chase their own tails. As usual, it’s the Springfield mob and their completely incoherent ideals and selfish desires that prevent the town from moving forward in a positive direction.
Springfield’s citizens have already proven themselves too incompetent to simply raise a bit of money for their schools. Still, there’s no one else to decide who will teach the children as the strike continues. The PTA chooses an array of incompetent replacement teachers for Springfield Elementary including Moe, who acts overly emotional and defensive in front of kindergarteners, Jasper, who gets his beard stuck in a pencil sharpener, and of course Marge. Having your mom as a teacher is the end of the line for Bart, who shifts his focus from supporting the strike to getting the real teachers back in the school. In the end, Skinner gets the funding he needs to satisfy the teachers by selling excess space in the classrooms to the local penitentiary.
While “The PTA Disbands” is an animated masterpiece and one of the most hilarious episodes of The Simpsons, it’s also cynical and disheartening. The resolution to the teacher’s strike is a myopic, desperate move that’s likely to create a lot more problems than it solves. None of the teachers, administrators, children, or parents have learned anything, and there’s no indication this won’t happen again. Ultimately, nothing is going to get fixed because the citizens of the town are their own worst enemy. Unfortunately for the United States, this feels more prophetic than ever.