"PTO" typically stands for "parent-teacher organization" and is the general acronym for the approximately 75 percent of parent-teacher groups that choose to remain independent of the National PTA. Many independent groups refer to themselves as a PTO; others have acronyms such as HSA (Home and School Association), PCC (Parent Communication Council), or the like. In the typical PTO vs. PTA discussion, all independent groups—those not affiliated with the National PTA—fall under the general PTO umbrella.
In a nutshell, PTAs are local groups that affiliate with the National PTA. These groups pay dues to their respective state PTAs and to the National PTA, and they receive benefits from those organizations. “PTO” is the general acronym for the many groups (PTOs, PCCs, HSAs, etc.) that choose to remain independent. PTOs are free to write their own bylaws, and they can either charge no dues at all—a nice touch to encourage involvement—or keep whatever dues they do charge at their school.
While “PTA” is the most well-recognized acronym to the general public, perhaps because of the Harper Valley song and movie, these days approximately 75 percent of K-8 parent-teacher groups are actually independent PTOs. Of the more than 112,000 K-12 schools in the United States, only about 25,000 of those still have formally affiliated PTA units.
It really depends on what fits your community best. A PTA is part of the National PTA network; these groups have access to additional resources and benefits but also have less flexibility to operate how they want to at the local level. A PTO is an independent organization, which comes with maximum flexibility; while you do have to build your own support network, PTO Today is here to help (and we support all parent groups, regardless of affiliation or acronym).
These articles give a good overview:
4. Is it true that PTOs don’t have access to resources and can’t be official, standalone, not-for-profit organizations?
No, not at all.
PTOs have always been eligible to get their own 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, and thousands of PTOs have already done so. This is exactly the same legal/tax designation that PTAs typically have.
Some PTOs do not take the step of officially establishing their independence with the IRS, which typically results in the group being basically a committee or organization of the school. This option is especially common at religious and private schools. It’s a structural choice that has worked for many groups for a long time and is acceptable, if that’s what your group wants.
For many years, being a PTO did mean being completely on your own, with little assistance or help available. If you wanted insurance as a PTO, for example, your only real option was going to your local broker and trying your luck. Similarly, there was really nowhere to turn for insight on something as innocuous as how to run a spaghetti supper or as essential as building parent involvement—and why involvement is so important.
Since 1999, however, PTO leaders as well as PTA leaders have had the many resources provided by PTO Today to help them do their work more effectively. The vast majority of PTO Today's resources—our 80,000-circulation print magazine, most of this ptotoday.com website, and our many kits and programs, for example—are provided free of charge to all parent-teacher groups, no matter the acronym.
As another example, whereas once PTOs really could only get insurance at a very high rate from a local broker, today PTOs can get very competitive group rates through a resource that PTO Today has put together.
PTO Today is a media and services company focused on the world of parent-teacher groups. Our print magazine is mailed to every K-8 school in the country (addressed to the PTO or PTA officers) seven times per year. Similarly, this website and our many services are used by tens of thousands of parent group leaders from both PTOs and PTAs every week.
That’s really the extent of it. Neither PTOs nor PTAs “belong” to PTO Today nor are they “members” of PTO Today, as PTO Today is not a membership organization. PTAs and PTOs can, however, join PTO Today Plus for a fee which provides parent groups an even higher level of service and benefits. Groups do not need to belong to Plus to make use of a majority of our services.
If you have ideas for how we can be of more service, please let us know.
Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. It’s really up to the local PTO.
That said, this really is one of the fundamental differences between PTOs and PTAs. The National PTA is very openly an advocacy organization with a lobbying office in Washington and similar efforts in several state capitals. Being a PTA ties you into that political effort. That’s a positive for some groups (those for whom state or national political advocacy is a goal) and a negative for others (often those who might disagree with a particular PTA position and not appreciate supporting that position with dues dollars).
PTOs usually take one of two directions when it comes to politics and lobbying. They either decide to stay completely out of it, usually because they choose to focus on involvement and community and feel that politics gets in the way of that, or they get active at the local level with at-school or in-district issues.
If you're just starting a parent group (or looking to button up your existing, fairly informal PTO), our best advice is to join PTO Today Plus. Among other benefits of membership—access to group insurance discounts, discounts on all PTO Today products and services, multiple subscriptions to our print magazine, etc.—is our expert PTO Startup Toolkit. It walks parent leaders through the key first steps in starting an independent parent group, including incorporation, bylaws, applying for nonprofit status, and group insurance.
Even without PTO Today Plus membership, groups can still form PTOs. You'll want to incorporate (check with your state), and we also recommend filing for nonprofit status with the federal government. Another important first step is to write bylaws that will govern your group. We've compiled a wide variety of sample bylaws from groups around the country in the bylaws/policies File Exchange.
This is really a two-part question because the process for disbanding an existing PTA is independent of the process to start a PTO. You're not really turning your PTA into a PTO. Technically, you're winding down your PTA and starting a completely separate entity—your new PTO. In fact, it's perfectly all right to have the new PTO start up before the PTA is completely disbanded. We recommend this timing, in fact, because it helps ensure that there is no gap between the end of the PTA and the beginning of the PTO. Read “Switching From PTA to PTO” for more information.
Some thoughts if you’re considering dissolving your PTA:
To dissolve your existing PTA, you'll want to refer to the procedures in your existing PTA bylaws. Each state PTA has slightly different dissolution requirements involving notice to the state PTA, notice and discussion among your local unit’s members, and what type of vote is required for dissolution. One question that comes up frequently is dealing with the remaining PTA funds at the time of dissolution. The simplest recommendation is to have as few dollars as possible in your treasury before taking a formal disband-or-don’t-disband vote. In that way, if your group votes to disband, then there is very little to worry about financially (one less complication)—and if you vote not to disband, then you can just return to business as usual.
For most groups, spending the treasury down to near zero is a matter of spending dollars on items that you typically support (teacher stipends or field trips or purchases for school, etc.) while perhaps postponing one fundraiser until after your vote. It’s also allowable for 501(c)(3) groups to donate funds to other tax-exempt organizations.
After that, most state PTA bylaws require that you announce a meeting X number of days in advance (often 30), and—after debate—the dissolution vote usually needs to pass by a 60 percent or 66 percent super-majority. In a few states, bylaws require that you invite a state PTA representative to your dissolution meeting and allow that person floor time to speak. This can often lead to testy moments. If your bylaws don't specifically require that kind of visit, then you are not required to allow it. If you do invite the state representative to your meeting, remember that the guest speaker is just that: a guest. He or she is not a voting member of your group, and your presiding officer (presumably the president) should control the meeting—who speaks, when they speak, how long they speak, etc.—just as they would at any other meeting of your PTA.
We've heard from many former PTA leaders that state PTA officials made the dissolution process seem very difficult and that the relationship between the dissolving unit and the state PTA became confrontational. While that’s regrettable—if your group has done its homework on all the pros and cons and still wants to make the switch—the important things to remember are: 1) you just need to follow your bylaws as best you can; and 2) many thousands of groups have successfully dissolved before you. Remain professional and buttoned up (and focused on the good work you want to do for your school and the kids), and things will work fine.
In terms of transition, it’s actually perfectly OK to start the process of creating a PTO before your formal vote is taken on dissolving your PTA. That might include getting an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS and even applying for tax-exempt status (though you have 27 months to actually file this paperwork and your approval will be retroactive to your PTO’s start-up or incorporation date). In this way, you can avoid any “gap” between the formal end of your PTA and the formal start of your PTO.
There is nothing at all wrong with having both a PTO and a PTA in existence at the same time, especially if that helps make a transition smoother and helps parents continue to do good work for your school and kids. It’s equivalent to having a “football boosters” club and a “pigskin parents” club in existence at the same time at the same school. It might be odd or confusing for parents if both were to operate for the long-term, but there’s certainly nothing legally or ethically wrong with having more than one organization with the mission of helping your school and your kids in existence at the same time. And creating that overlap can help with the transition. If the PTA disband vote doesn’t pass, it’s a very simple matter to let the new PTO go dormant.
There is no "National PTO" in the traditional sense. Even though PTOs are the most common type of parent group, each PTO is independent.
That said, many folks consider PTO Today to be the closest equivalent to a national PTO. With our national magazine, national website, events across the country, and PTO Today Plus package of benefits, PTO Today is providing key services to a broad spectrum of parent groups in all 50 states. You can reach us directly through this site.
If you have questions on a parent group issue, odds are it's been discussed in our Facebook group for PTO and PTA leaders and volunteers.
For questions about your budget or finances, try a free trial of PTO Today Finance Manager, web-based software that can help you organize and manage your parent group's finances all in one place.
If you have a question for a specific PTO Today department, you can contact us by email.
Originally posted in 2008 and updated regularly.