(Editor’s Note: This feature story was first published in August 2000 and some relatively immaterial references may be out of date.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.

Because PTA is the only national school-parent membership organization, PTA representatives are often used as the default spokespeople for parents in education debates. In March 2009, for example, PTA CEO Byron Garrett provided testimony at a Congressional hearing on federal school lunch nutrition standards.

And National PTA maintains a high profile. The new century has seen the group spending more time (and money) than ever on national public relations efforts. A paid advertising campaign earlier this decade garnered a good deal of attention. More recently, the PTA has benefited from Ad Council support for a national print, TV, and radio parent involvement ad campaign.  Additionally, several celebrities have signed on with PTA as PTA "Ambassadors for Youth." (Well-known NASCAR driver Carl Edwards was among them, although he no longer participates.)

Interestingly, PTA membership numbers nationally have dropped since these campaigns kicked off.

At a more basic level, the group certainly provides a host of resources to affiliated groups that want to take advantage. From a carefully crafted Reflections arts campaign that PTA schools can take part in to state and national resource manuals (virtual how-to books on running a parent group) and an active website, PTA member groups are offered many benefits in exchange for group dues.

The Rise of PTOs

Obviously, the trouble for the National PTA is not evidenced in its long list of high-profile affiliations. Instead, the problem is at the local level, where groups struggle to justify the rising expense and sometimes-questionable practical benefits of belonging to the PTA.

The average local PTA forwards nearly $1,000 to its county, state, and national organizations in dues alone. Increasingly, groups are looking at those dollars in terms of what the money could buy for the local school—an extra field trip, perhaps, or maybe a new color printer for each grade. Other groups would prefer to charge no dues (not an option for PTAs), preferring instead to consider all parents automatic members of the parent group at their children's school. While PTA leaders are quick to point out that many parent group purchases should actually be part of a school budget, local parent groups—both PTAs and PTOs—often step in and provide extras for their schools when school budgets run dry. When measured in purely economic (cost-benefit) terms, local groups often ask, "Are we getting enough value for the hundreds of dollars we pay in dues?"

"Our dues are $5 per member," points out Sue Greenleaf of the Norris Road PTO in Tyngsboro, Mass. "We use that money for buses for field trips and all kinds of other things. If we had to send half our dues to the PTA, we'd have to do a lot more fundraising. For what we use the funds for, I don't see how the PTA can help us in our individual school."

That math only becomes more difficult as PTA dues increase. National PTA per-member dues increased again in the summer of 2011 to $2.25 per member, up from the $1.75 per member dues that had been in effect since 2002. States (and sometimes PTA county councils, too) also charge per-member dues, ranging from a couple of dollars all the way up to $7 per member in Oregon. 

The 21st Century PTA

While some PTAers see the membership decline as cause for concern, National PTA leaders are actually moving in a different direction. A recently completed long-term strategic plan has PTA leaders focused on maintaining a core group of parent leaders committed to the PTA agenda, according to former PTA Director of Public Relations Patty Yoxall. It's a wholesale shift from a philosophy of wanting all parent groups to associate with the PTA.

"If we get a bit more focused, people may leave us," says Yoxall. "We want people who are committed to this agenda, and if they're not, that's fine. Go be a PTO and have a nice life."

Yoxall talks of a PTA in which every member is a trained advocate for children. She speaks of a PTA down the road that is the voice for families and for children. The PTA's wide-ranging advertising campaign has been a first step in this effort. Creating a new leadership structure—through a reshuffling of its board, through the creation of a highly paid CEO position for the group, and through a broad expansion of headquarters staff and payroll—is another move aimed at repositioning the PTA as an important player with a voice in national issues. Critics say it's an expensive and risky bet on the future of the PTA.

It's here, in the debate over what the PTA voice should say, that the PTO vs. PTA argument has become most heated in recent years. The PTA takes strong public stands on some controversial issues (opposing school vouchers and supporting a gay/lesbian PTA unit, for example), and those stances have led some groups to disassociate from the PTA. Headlines in Utah—a heavily PTA state where PTA political stances have only recently come under scrutiny—have highlighted groups choosing to leave the PTA rather than support locally unpopular political stances. While the PTA says that its political role is central to its mission and has been for more than a century, many local units don't see the value.

Other critics say that the general PTA membership is unaware of the PTA's major political bent. "One of the basic problems with the PTA is that the membership is not aware of what the lobbying efforts are," says Charlene Haar, author of The Politics of the PTA, a carefully researched look into PTA past and present. The parent members who are financing the organization are unaware of the lobbying agenda at the state and national level. Most PTA policy stances are voted on at the group's annual convention each June. Typically, fewer than 1,000 PTA members—of more than 5.7 million members nationwide—are certified to vote at that convention.

Societal shifts have played a part in the changing role of the PTA. Not long ago, the PTA could rightfully claim to be the only provider of parent group resources. If you wanted information on running a group or fundraising or Robert's Rules of Order, or if you wanted materials on Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or bus safety or school bullying, the PTA was a valued clearinghouse. Today, with the advent of round-the-clock communication and the spread of the Internet, that PTA role takes on far less importance. There are dozens of sites on the web focused specifically on parent involvement, fundraising, or playgrounds. Want ADD info? Why not try www.chadd.org?

PTOs No Longer Alone

Even one of the PTA's most common selling points—"A PTO is not part of a national or state organization and therefore doesn't have a network to get information from" is the common refrain on most state PTA websites—is less true today than ever before. Since the establishment in 1999 of PTO Today Inc., a company focused on providing resources and services to parent-teacher groups, all parent groups now have access to the types of services once available only to PTAs. With a print magazine, an active website, a series of training events and conferences across the country, and a host of programs and tools designed specifically to help PTO and PTA leaders, PTO Today has established itself as a valuable resource for all parent groups.

Much as PTA officials are often looked to by national media for input on parent and parent involvement issues, PTO Today has quickly assumed a similar role. PTO Today experts and PTO Today parent involvement content have appeared on national and local television and radio and in newspapers around the country, including USA Today, Newsweek, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, Child magazine, Martha Stewart Kids, and many more.

Similarly, the company's recent partnerships with consumer marketers like Symantec, Target, Tide, Best Buy, and more have made additional resources available (for free) to all PTOs and PTAs.

The vast majority of PTO Today's services are available and used by both PTOs and PTAs alike. At one time, it was thought that groups leaving the PTA desired isolation, but the strong grassroots response to PTO Today's offerings suggests that perhaps those groups were simply looking for a different model of assistance. Where once the only practical way for a parent group to get liability insurance or to attend a parent group training event was to affiliate with the PTA, now PTO Today offers more cafeteria-style access to insurance, conferences, and more. Groups can now rather easily compare the benefits and costs of PTA affiliation to the costs and benefits or remaining independent and make their own eyes-open decision on which model works best for them.

Now, more than ever, it seems that the PTA cannot be—nor does it need to be—everything to everybody.

The Years Ahead

Moving forward, PTA critic Haar and PTA spokeswoman Yoxall actually seem to have compatible hopes for the future of the PTA. Haar works toward a day when all PTA members know what is going on. If they then choose to be members, fine. But they should at least be informed. Yoxall similarly sees a PTA that says, "Instead of 'We want all groups,' maybe 'We want the groups that buy in.' "

Despite the ever-louder talk of differences and division, two important facts remain. Nearly all K-8 schools still have active parent groups, and nearly all active parent groups work toward the same goal: strong, nurturing schools. Even PTA-affiliated parent groups, which are part of the larger "all children" philosophy, spend the vast majority of their time working to improve their single school.

"When it really comes down to it, all of the groups do the same things," notes the Massachusetts PTA's Bailey. And Haar points out that the decline in PTA rolls doesn't represent a lack of parent involvement because where there is not a PTA, there is a PTO or another parent group.

There's little doubt that the PTA will continue to play an important part in the parent group world in years to come. There's equally little doubt that its future role will be different from the one it has held in the past. National PTA membership is down nearly 7 million members from its peak in the 1960s and down nearly 1 million members in the past decade alone. With more resource options available for parent groups (and parents) today, that trend is likely to continue.

But no matter what the numbers, PTOs and PTAs are more alike than they are different. Put 1,000 PTAers in a room with 1,000 PTOers and you wouldn't be able to tell them apart (and, no, you wouldn't need to issue boxing gloves). Committed, generous volunteers are the common denominator. As long as those volunteers continue to support their schools—through a PTO, a PTA, or any other mechanism—then children, all children, will be the winners.

Add your 2 cents to the PTO vs. PTA discussion.

For the National PTA’s take on these same issues, check out their “differences” page here.