There’s often a lot of discussion about what type of parent group organization is better, PTA or PTO?
And I’ve heard more than a few people ask, should my PTA leave to become a PTO?
Let me come right out and state that I have a very definite opinion about the best type of group!
But before I go there and tell you just what I think, some basics have to be covered for context and clarity…
First, there are a lot of misunderstandings about what is a PTA and what is and what isn’t a PTO and this alone can be really confusing.
The primary thing to understand is all PTAs are PTOs, but not all PTOs are PTAs.
Now, let’s dig in deeper to the pros and cons of PTOs and PTA to understand why that’s true and the differences and commonalities between the two different parent group types.
At the end of the day, PTOs and PTAs have more in common than not.
So, what exactly is PTA anyway?
If you head on over to pta.org, you’ll see that Parent Teacher Association (PTA) has the stated purpose of improving education, health and safety for children.
PTA units are connected to other PTAs through their District, State and then to the National PTA.
The National PTA functions like an umbrella organization and develops programs, best practices and educational pieces for the State and local units.
PTA also has various requirements, like membership dues and other requirements like how bylaws should be structured, and more.
Because of the age of the PTA, they’ve developed a very large organization that has many, many dedicated and knowledgable volunteers.
These volunteers have been there and they know how to get out of sticky situations.
And they also know how to hold onto paperwork.
So if your PTA can’t find its bylaws, it’s easy to call your State PTA and have them email you a copy of what they have on file.
Worst case scenario, you’ll have an outdated copy of bylaws to work from instead of no bylaws at all.
Moreover, the National and State PTAs provide training, education and support to PTA units and building Principals.
This is perfect for newbie parent volunteers because they’ll have answers just an email or phone call away.
If your newly elected board of officers couldn’t be more green, then the District Advisor will be happy to come and do some training!
If you suspect something nefarious is happening with your group, let’s say you think the Treasurer is embezzling money, well then the District Advisor and State PTA is there to help out!
What is PTO?
Parent Teacher Organizations (PTO) are groups comprised of, you guessed it, parents and teachers in schools that aim to enrich the educational experience of students.
The stated goals will vary based on the missions of the individuals PTOs.
Each PTO sets its own rules and operating procedures.
PTOs are generally stand-alone organizations and aren’t connected to any other organization or PTO.
There is no list or registry of PTOs.
There’s no secret guidebook for PTOs.
When it comes to governing documents like bylaws and standing rules, the PTOs are on their own to craft rules and best practices to operate and guide their group.
PTOs are also on their own for figuring everything out.
And by everything, I do mean e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g.
The success or failure of the PTOs rest on the knowledge, talent and resources of the individual volunteers. That’s a lot to lay on the shoulders of volunteers.
This doesn’t mean that PTOs can’t be tremendously successful, but the reality is they just have less to work with initially, and there’s zero guidance in place to help groups versus what’s available to PTA units.
And one other thing that many parents don’t realize is that if you’re a not a PTA, then you’re a PTO.
Even if your group is called a Home School Association, or Parent Council or something else entirely, those are just other ways of saying PTO.
Can you have both a PTA and a PTO at the same school?
Technically, you can have both a PTO and a PTA at the same school, but only if the two groups have different and distinct focuses.
You really don’t want to have two groups focused on the same thing since it would make both organizations weaker, since they’d be competing for volunteer and other resources.
There’s just no reason to introduce this sort of competition since it’s already hard enough to get parents involved in PTO and school.
And it would make it super confusing for parents unfamiliar with the particulars of the groups.
The only way that having both a PTO and a PTA at the same school work in reality is that you could have a PTA that’s organized to serve the interests of students, teachers and staff and then another group that’s a Booster Club (aka a PTO) to support student athletes.
But two similar groups with near matching goals?
No, don’t do this.
Just pick one group type and go with it.
What it comes down to in the end is that there’s no one perfect answer, but you just need to pick a route and then head in that direction.
What’s the best type of group structure: PTA or PTO?
My position on this issue has really evolved in the past few years.
I’ll readily admit that I have personally discussed the option of leaving PTA to become a PTO with my fellow PTA officers a few years ago.
But the discussions about this topic I’ve seen and been a part of in my Facebook Group for PTO/PTA leaders have helped to define my stance in another direction entirely.
And that is: If I could choose any structure for my school parent group, I’m gonna go with PTA every single time.
And here’s why.
Sometimes the PTA structure and some of the rules are a bit clunky.
For example, I don’t necessarily like having to collect membership dues and neither.
Because some parents think they’re doing their part by just paying dues once a year and never volunteer or help with anything else during the year.
Despite that possible negative aspect and any other one you might think of, it really doesn’t matter!
The positive aspects of being a PTA (training, support, ready access to resources) vastly outweigh the negatives.
It’s really not even close.
When times are good, and the group is running smoothly, it’s easy to wonder if it would be even easier if there wasn’t the organizational hierarchy of PTA to deal with.
But the time you’ll be begging for that organizational hierarchy and wealth of resources is not when times are good.
It’s when times are bad.
Case in Point
Not too long ago, I had a private conversation with a member of the PTA/PTO Super Star Leaders Facebook Group that went a little like this:
The President and Treasurer aren’t following the bylaws and standing rules. If they don’t like a rule, they simply hold a vote at the next meeting to change that rule. There’s no accountability. No one is doing what they need to be doing. I’ve tried talking with the Principal about this and he’s no help either. What should I do?
Now if this group was a PTA, my answer would be simple: Reach out to your District Advisor. Because the District Advisor would step in and start leading the President and Treasurer back on track.
But unfortunately, this particular group is a PTO. There is absolutely no support network for this group.
This PTO volunteer is kind of out of luck for changing things unless she wants to run for a leadership position and try to revamp the organization from within.
But I doubt she’ll ever do that because she was so frustrated with the situation.
My advice to her was pretty weak: Go to the Principal again and try to persuade him to step in. Quietly talk with other PTO officers to gauge their feelings about the situation. See if others are willing to speak up and demand accountability.
The weakness is due to the fact that there are fewer resources and tools available to non-PTAs. In fact that’s one of the reasons why I started PTO Answers in the first place.
I recognized that there wasn’t a heck of a lot of real advice from experienced leaders out there to help PTOs.
Too much generic, vanilla advice and not enough of the nitty gritty real world, uncomfortable advice that’s needed for leaders like the one who reached out to me.
And this is just one example of a PTO volunteer who’s reached out to me in complete dismay over the shenanigans happening in their group. They have no easy solutions due to the lack of structure and support, but I could retell the sorrowful tales of dozens of other PTOs in a similar situation.
It’s a Waste of Money to Leave PTA
The next reason to stay with PTA is that it’s a total waste of money to leave.
Most local PTA units get their tax-exempt status from their state PTA.
So if your PTA were to vote to disaffiliate from PTA and become an independent PTO, your group will have to file all new paperwork to maintain the tax exempt status.
Your group will benefit massively from tax exempt status- supplies will be cheaper since you don’t have to pay tax and you’ll be able to qualify for grants and donations reserved specifically for 501c3 charitable organizations.
The cost to file the tax exempt paperwork with the IRS is about $250. Not a ton of money, but I think it should be spent on the students and teachers in your school and not going to organizational overhead.
Since your PTA will be dissolving, you’ll also need all new bank accounts and checks for the new organization.
Business checks aren’t inexpensive either, so you’re looking at spending a minimum of $300 just to get re-established as the new legal entity.
Spending the money in this way doesn’t do a thing to benefit the students, teachers or staff.
It’s a Waste of Time to Leave PTA
Last, all the time it takes to restart the new legal PTO entity could be better spent planning a family fun event, setting up a new teacher grant program or anything else to benefit your schools students, teachers or staff.
Figuring out how to file for the tax exempt status and re-registering the new legal entity with your state, and finishing those processes through, in addition to having to reset up all everything else, including bylaws and standing rules will eat up a lot of a few volunteers’ time.
Then they’ll have that much less to spend on anything fun for the group.
My Ultimate Recommendation
So if you are thinking about leaving PTA to become a PTO, don’t. Just don’t.
All the time, money and effort it’ll take to make the switch really could be better spent being funneled back into your school community instead.
Even if you know the best ways to run an efficient, well-organized PTO with deeply engaged parents, it doesn’t mean that volunteers who come onto the scene after you will.
In fact, odds are they won’t because running a PTO isn’t a piece of cake.
There are a ton of moving parts and personalities to manage and it’s very easy to have one leader come in and be the wrecking ball that totally destroys your PTO.
The fail-safe that PTA provides is simply too good to pass up since at the end of the day, you got involved in the PTA to make your kid’s life better because happy kids = happy parents.
I cover a little more about the whole PTA versus PTO issue right in this video:
Over to you!
I hope this article has given you lots to think about when it comes to