(Editor’s Note: This feature story was first published in August 2000 and some relatively immaterial references may be out of date. For example, the National PTA has moved its headquarters from Chicago to Alexandria, Va. For PTO Today’s most updated information on the differences, please visit our PTO vs. PTA: Differences at a Glance page.)

It was perhaps the loudest reaction on the first day of the 2000 National PTA convention in Chicago. Illinois Superintendent of Schools Dr. Glenn McGee remembered a day earlier in his career when he made the mistake of referring to parent groups as PTOs.

Almost on cue, the crowd of 1,500 or so PTAers roared their disapproval. Loud boos echoed through the cavernous meeting hall. He may as well have said that he hated the Cubs, the White Sox, the Bulls, and the Bears.

Why the strong emotions? Are PTOs hurting kids or doing something wrong? While no PTA defenders go that far, there is a subtle but undeniable implication in PTA circles that those independent groups that aren't part of the PTA are in some way choosing to abandon the cause of children.

It's a debate that has smoldered quietly for decades but that seems to be burning with renewed vigor in recent years. Now more than ever, the National PTA is at a crossroads, and the debate over its future and the direction taken by thousands of individual school parent groups has heated up.

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For some groups, the PTO vs. PTA debate is simply a matter of dollars and cents—either "We don't want to send any money out of our school" or "Are we getting enough service for the money we send out of our school?" For others, though, the debate takes on a significantly increased importance. If we don't speak for all children, then who will? the PTA's most loyal defenders often ask.

Independence vs. Affiliation

The technical differences between a PTA and a PTO are fairly simple. The National PTA is a formal membership organization headquartered in Chicago with a 105-year history of working for children. Local groups that choose to belong to the PTA must pay dues to the state and national organizations and abide by state and national group rules. In return, they get member benefits, and they get a voice in the operations of the larger organization. The National PTA maintains a Washington, D.C., lobbying office, and most state PTAs advocate at their respective state capitals, as well. The PTA carefully protects its name, so that in theory only dues-paying members of the group can call themselves a PTA.

PTO, on the other hand, is a more generic term. It generally represents the thousands of groups that choose to remain independent of the PTA. The acronym PTO is the most popular name, but other common monikers include PCC, PTG, and HSA. These are most often single-school groups that operate under their own bylaws and by and large concern themselves with the goings-on at their building or in their town only.

For years, the debate has been exceedingly simple to frame. Do we want to be part of something larger and spend our group dollars outside of our school? Or do we want to focus exclusively on improving and creating community at our school? Since the PTA was the only formal national school parent group, the decision was often PTA or not PTA.

Even in just those terms, the PTA has been losing significant membership. From a record high of 12.1 million members in 1962, PTA membership dropped to just over 5 million in the early 1980s. Today, PTA membership stands at about 5.8 million, despite record-high school enrollments. More than 52 million students are enrolled in America's K-12 schools.

The Massachusetts PTA's experience is telling. "Back in the 1960s, we had over 100,000 members," recalled Massachusetts PTA Treasurer and past President Barbara Bailey in a 1999 interview. "There are just over 20,000 members now in 126 local units." Ten years later, the Mass PTA is down to approximately 120 units and 18,000 members.

Parent group leaders from around the country seem to be voting resoundingly with their feet; they're content to work independently at their own schools without the strictures (and dues) associated with formal PTA membership.

"We can't get enough people to come to our meetings anyway, let alone charging them to be members," observes Sue Walter, a PTO president in London, Ky., echoing the most common objection to PTA membership.

Despite its national profile and terrific name recognition, the National PTA actually has units in fewer than 25 percent of America's K-8 schools. While there is no highly accurate count of PTO groups (because independent PTOs do not have to report into one central structure), conservative estimates put the count of PTO/independent groups at well more than double that of PTA units.

PTA Membership at a Glance

PTA Membership at a Glance—U.S. Map
Click here for a larger view and more detailed information.

A PTA History

After 100-plus years, the PTA name has certainly achieved a high degree of recognition.

In fact, Dr. McGee's reported slip of the tongue was very unusual. For the vast majority of Americans, the term "school parent group" goes hand in hand with the term "PTA," and it's most often "PTO" that is met with quizzical stares. When Tom T. Hall wrote his chart-topping song, it was "Harper Valley PTA." The movie and TV series of the same name cemented the impression further. Like Kleenex and Band-Aid, the PTA name is often used universally, while the actual numbers tell a different story.

Since its inception in 1897, when Alice McLellan Birney and Phoebe Apperson Hearst started the National Congress of Mothers, the National PTA has spoken out on issues relating to child welfare. PTA support played a role in instituting school lunch and inoculation programs. Even today, the PTA's lobbying branch in Washington, D.C., is actively involved in working against school vouchers and fighting for increased federal education funding.