Answers to some basic questions about PTOs and PTAs, including how to get started organizing your group.


  1. What does "PTO" mean?

  2. What's the difference between "PTO" and "PTA"?

  3. What's the benefit of changing from a PTA to a PTO?

  4. Is it true that PTOs don’t have access to resources and can’t be official, standalone not-for-profit organizations?

  5. What’s the relationship between PTO Today and local PTOs and PTAs?

  6. Do PTOs lobby or get involved with politics?

  7. How do I start a PTO?

  8. How do we change from a PTA to a PTO?

  9. How do we join/contact the National PTO?

  10. What if we have more questions?

1. What does "PTO" mean?

"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.

2. What’s the difference between “PTO” and “PTA”?

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.

Plus Members get access to insurance, discounts, expert advice, and more!

3. What’s the benefit of changing from a PTA to a PTO?

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:

PTO vs. PTA: What’s the Difference?

PTO vs. PTA: Differences at a Glance

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 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.

5. What’s the relationship between PTO Today and local PTOs and PTAs?

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.

6. Do PTOs lobby or get involved with politics?

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.

7. How do I start a PTO?

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.

8. How do we change from a PTA to a PTO?

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.

9. How do we join/contact the National PTO?

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.

10. More questions? We're here to help.

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.


# Louise Brown 2008-05-08 18:33
Is it a bad idea for a floundering high school to let the superintendant's office assist in forming a new parent group? What is the history of this and are there obvious problems? This school has been plagued by in-fighting and rifts between administration and parents.

# James Uhlmann 2008-05-13 16:04
Interesting information, what you don't inform your readers about is that, although the PTO is a general organization, the leader of the PTO today is in a FOR profit role, where as the PTA organization is a total non-profit organization which has been formed and runs to keep our childrens interests first in our day to day activities.
# Tim Sullivan from PTO Today 2008-05-13 16:59
Hi James --

The leader of PTO Today?? That's me. I don't think we've met, but I like to think that I'm a fairly nice person and that we do a lot to help schools and parent groups and kids. Respect your right to feel otherwise.

And, yes, PTO Today is a (hopefully) for-profit company. Not sure exactly why that's bad. Kind of like Time and Scholastic and hundreds of other media companies (minus about 6 zeros in the profit column, darn it!).

Also not sure what "total non-profit organization" means? Are these folks: ... not getting paid? Or the hundred of so employees at various state PTAs?

If there was a non-profit car company and Ford, would it be better to buy a car from the non-profit, no matter which firm's car fit your needs better?

Those are just a couple of questions. This discussion is probably better had on our message boards ( Thanks for your input.

# Christina Cook 2008-05-28 01:20
What do you mean "hundreds of employees at various state PTA's"? Colorado PTA has ONE paid employee at the state business office for its 30,000 members.The rest of the board are VOLUNTEERS!
# Tim Sullivan 2008-05-28 06:53
Hi Christina -

I'm sorry if that wasn't clear. The "hundreds" was cumulative. I don't have an exact count, but I believe national PTA has roughly 80 employees and I believe the various state PTAs (in total) have another 130+ employees. Many states, like yours, have one employee. But a good number more (TX, CA, WA, more) have 5-10+ employees.

Tons of nonprofits have employees. Just as tons of for-profits do good work for people. Are the employees who are getting paid somehow bad? I certainly don't think so. How about when they negotiate for a raise each year? Are they not "for kids" then? Again, I don't think so. But the analogy is there based on what PTA folks say about PTO Today.
# J 2008-05-29 20:34
Hi Tim, nice to read your openess about making a profit over providing basic common info (just takes alittle time on the interent) to parents that all they are interested in is helping their child's school. My question is "Can you tell us one negative aspect of your organization?" (as you are quick to point out PTA's).
# Tim Sullivan from PTO Today 2008-05-29 23:10
I don't always come to a complete stop at stop signs. And sometimes I misspell words in our blog. That what you mean?

Of course, we do plenty wrong. But we try to get better every day. Being a for-profit company, by the way, isn't one of those things I feel is wrong. Worth mentioning that not a single PTO or PTA pays us a penny for a service, unless they actively want and utilize that service.
# Jodie 2008-06-14 17:56
I'm not sure why there is debate regarding the for profit status of this PTO support organization. Doesn't the school and the district itself pay vendors in every area of operation for supoort and services? Why is this service any different than software companies that sell programs to schools, or food service vendors? I wish everyone had the same "nonprofit preferred" attitude when we care for kids in the healthcare industry where outrageous profits seem to be a nationally protected birthright. As the new president of a large middle school PTA in the Chicago burbs...I will be looking for reasons this year to continue paying our hefty PTA dues for services we don't even use.
Thank you for the informative discussion.
# Kathryn 2008-06-20 01:21
I have worked for a lot of nonprofits (including being there at the beginning when they were getting 501c3 status), and been treasurer of both a PTO and PTA.

I think the article gives good info EXCEPT really skims over the 501c3 status.

Yes, a PTO can apply for, and probably recieve, non-profit status, but the IRS form (and making sure you do the correct state forms) is a lot of work and it takes time and it costs money (last I checked it was a minimum of $500).

Having the 501c3 already in place for us as a PTA, plus having the state office sending us reminders to make sure we do everything we have to to keep our non-profit status valid is worth the approx. $300/year we send them.

When I became Treasurer of a PTO, I learned that they had been "borrowing" the school district's tax id number when we did fundraisers. They didn't know they weren't supposed to, in fact that number was on our bank account.
# jamie 2008-07-22 09:27
where do i find info to disban out PTA and what we need to do..we have no clue
# callie 2008-08-20 00:48
The subject of PTA or PTA has come up in our area.
These days it seems like were playing tug of war on who's the best organzation and what we should do is work together to make things possible for a better education.
We need to go for the impossible and make it possible
# Stacy 2008-09-03 17:36
HELP!!! I am sooo confused, I am currently a PTA pres and we are struggling with money & members. Myself and 2 other people.

We've been seriously considering disbaning the PTA and starting a PTO, since, from what I've been reading, seems we've been basically functioning as if we were a PTO. the members(LOL) and I were kind of thrown into the PTA leadership positions with NO DIRECTION OR INSTRUCTION so I'm pretty much ignorant in all aspects, other than running fundraisers and the end of year party.

In everything I've read, I've not come across anything pertaining to a PTO being a FOR PROFIT org. What EXACTLY does that mean?

Can someone help, please?
# Tim Sullivan from PTO Today 2008-09-03 18:56
Hi Stacy -

I think you'll find this site a Godsend in your new job. Our messgae boards are also a great resource (the archives) and tool (ask questions you have) for a new leader.

RE: for-profit. Both local PTOs and local PTAs are nonprofits. Nothing for you to worry about there. What you have likely seen are references to "PTO Today" (our company, the owners of this website and the free magazine, etc.) as a for-profit company. That's got nothing to do with your decision whether to be a PTA or PTO.
# Kim 2008-09-10 00:36
Hi Tim Sullivan,

My hat is off to you, I have been able to deal with PTO Today at another school before we moved and am now working with a PTA, if I could only put into words how much I miss everything associated with PTO Today! Great program, great system, idea's, etc........ KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK! From a Mom on the Board that misses all of your great benefits!!!
# Tim Sullivan from PTO Today 2008-09-10 13:42
Nice to hear that feedback. Thank you. Just so you know, all of our services and benefits are completely available to PTAs, too. It's a mis-perception that we're just for PTOs. We have tons of PTAs using this site, our PTO Manager software and the rest of our services. Hope you'll continue to take strong advantage. -- Tim
# Amy 2008-09-23 23:58
Our school had only a school advisory committee, when a few of us requested that we have a PTO like many other schools in the district. Our principal was absolutely opposed to it (I heard he had negative experiences in the past) and tabled the discussion last year. This year we hear that they have started a VIP (Volunteer Involvement Program). What is this? I have searched for information, but found nothing informative. Do you have any information about pros and cons?
# Ally 2008-10-02 05:51
I guess no one realizes that without PTA your kids would not have a hot lunch every day, there would be no kindergarten, immunizations would not be mandatory, there would be no child labor laws, and much, much more. What has PTO done throughout the history of children? And I guess you like to pay high yearly fees for insurance and 501c3 status. In PTA, each state has a different rate, but where I live, we pay $125 for insurance (full coverage) and less than $100 for 501c3 and incorporation. So, that saves us at least $1000 that non PTA's are paying-if they even buy insurance, which most of them don't and 99% of schools and districts don't cover parent group sponsored events. Also, with our insurance, we are covered fully in the event of theft and the law cannot go after our members or officers. And as we all know theft can happen to any group, PTA/PTO/sports/etc.
# Ally 2008-10-02 05:54
Check out this page ( to help broaden your awareness of PTA. We are not just about fundraising. We are there for our kids. We are in the schools and we are advocating for laws that will help ALL students succeed, not just in our own states, but in DC. Heard of No Child Left Behind? Another thing, PTA is a pure non-profit organization. Yes, there are National PTA staff members and each state has at least one staff that get paid, but I can guarantee that the pay they receive is no way close to what is in the pocket of the founder of PTO. The dues I pay for PTA is a heck of a lot less than some other organizations I am in and I don't get a quarter of the benefits from them that I do with PTA. If you have a PTO or other variant, I urge you to weigh the options with your parents about joining PTA or PTO. Obviously the choice is up to ALL the parents of the school (not just one or a few).
# Tim Sullivan from PTO Today 2008-10-02 06:02
Hi Ally -

While PTA supported those issues, I'm not sure it's fair to say they wouldn't have occurred (even 90 years later) without PTA. Seems like a bit of a stretch.

What have PTOs done? Tons. Are you really downplaying the good work of tens of thousands of independent parent groups over decades? I don't have the space to list all the good work.

Finally, when making that financial comparison, remember that re: 501c3 1) it's not required; and 2) for those PTOs that go that route, the $750 fee is one time compared to PTA dues which $1000+ every year, forever.

# Ginger 2008-10-02 14:11
All of this information is very interesting, but I came to this site for step by step information on starting a PTO at my child's school. Can anyone give me this information please? Thank you.
# Craig Bystrynski from PTO Today 2008-10-10 21:47
Hi Ginger -- I'd recommend the PTO Start-up Toolkit!/category/1002 You might also check out our Topics A to Z page for a list of topic areas. We have more than 400 articles on this site. And you'll find lots of experience parent group leaders willing to offer advice on our message boards. Good luck! -- Craig
# Tracey 2008-11-22 04:32
I can't figure out why you say having a 501(c)(3) status is not required as a PTO. If you are not operating as a 501(c)(3) organization, then donations are not tax deductible. Also, wouldn't you be paying income tax on your fundraising activities. And then what about sales tax exemption? If you don't have 501(c)(3) status then what type of entity would you be considered?
# Lysa 2008-12-11 01:40
PTA, PTO, Home and School association.... whatever you call it, what matters is what are they doing for the kids? I can tell you from a school that has a PTA, that the red tape and legal issues with belonging to a national organization does not seem to benefit our cause.
I cannot find out much about HSA, but I know enough about PTO to think that this is the route for us. I find little benefit to being a PTA member. The conventions are informational, but you do not need to be an active PTA member to attend a conference. Just sign up and pay your 5.00 or whatever to the school district of your choice and you can attend. I applaud you for addressing all the misinformed folks of this forum.
# Momof3Js 2009-02-06 00:36
RE:PTA's benefits, and work already done. For our PTA, which may soon become a PTA, we cannot function without a quorum! So, basically, if we can't get enough people to come to the meetings (only 2 meetings out of 7), we cannot vote through expenses or proposed expenses for the 'benefit' of our children's experiences.
I feel stuck in the middle...I appreciate the structure and guidelines of the PTA, but am stifled by them at the same time...
I absolutely appreaciate PTO Today, an all the information and ideas provided, and all the people that freely express their opinions and experiences! Thank you.
# Momof3Js 2009-02-06 00:38
....for example, the local PTA district is disbanning due to lack of attendance..........
# Chad 2009-03-11 17:01
Currently we have some parents who are interested in starting up a PTO. It sounds as if the PTO Today Plus is a good resource for parents to refer to. Does the resource come in Spanish?
# Tim Sullivan 2009-03-27 15:38
Hi Chad -

PTO Today Plus is primarily a "leader resource" as opposed to a "parent" resource, so it''s more of a resource for the folks who will be leading that start process. At this time, no, it does not come in Spanish.

# Cindy 2010-10-09 03:33
When there seems to be discrepency in the past presidents minutes of meetings, spending, and the where abouts of things purchased who do you go to have this looked into!
New to PTO! Can any help me! Thanks
# Craig Bystrynski 2010-10-12 15:00
Cindy -- The first thing you should do is create a written inventory of all PTO property on hand and perform an formal review of your books. The article Annual Audit: How and Why will help:

If you think there's been wrongdoing (vs. mismanagement), you should go to the police and ask them to investigate. If it turns out to be a matter of poor recordkeeping and money management, performing the audit and inventory will give you a baseline to start with a clean slate.

I'd also recommend the article 5 Smart Financial Controls:

Good luck!

# Kim 2012-09-28 04:08
PTA teaches volunteers how to run a non-profit board well. They send instructions and reminders to be sure no one forgets to do the taxes or sends the other required paperwork to the Attorney General, and all those other things groups are required to do by law. They believe in helping all kids. It's a very noble organization. We pay hardly anything... only $4.00 per member, so not "thousands" as the PTO guy said somewhere on here.

As your kids grow up and move out of the house, you will have more time to serve on your college board, the local symphony board... PTA will have trained you well and you will be valuable to any organization.
# Rockne 2012-09-28 15:05
Hi Kim -- Glad PTA is a good choice for you and, I assume, your whole group. I'm "that PTO guy", so I thought i'd clarify the one statement around dues. You're right that state and local dues combined are about $4 per person in most states (quite a bit higher in some), but my point about thousands of dollars actually refers to the total dues a unit as a whole sends out to state and national PTA. I saw a news item last week about a Florida high school PTA with more than 1,000 members. That group is basically paying at least $3,000 to be a PTA. There's nothing wrong with that (and this site and all of our services are available to them no matter their acronym), but that's the reality. Every group makes its own decision on which format is right for their circumstances.
# Jennafer 2015-03-15 17:21
What is hte difference between a home & school association and a PTO?
# Craig Bystrynski 2015-03-23 13:13
Jennafer -- A Home and School Association is the same as a PTO. PTO is the most common term to describe an independent parent-teacher group, but there are many variations. Home and School Association is one of the most popular alternatives. Essentially, all parent groups, whether they are called PTO, PTA, HSA, or another name, do the same things -- work to build support and a sense of community for the school.

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