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 understand why that’s true and the differences and commonalities between PTA and PTOs.
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 Worst case scenario, you’ll have an outdated copy of bylaws to work from instead of no bylaws at all.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! Because of the training and controls PTA recommends, fraud and embezzlement occurs at a vastly lower rate than non-PTA groups.
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.
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. The success or failure of the PTOs rest on the knowledge, talent and resources of the individual volunteers. This doesn’t mean that PTOs can’t be tremendously successful, but they just have less to work with initially and there’s less 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.
What’s the best type of group structure: PTA or PTO?
My position on this issue has really evolved in the past two 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. Some parents think they’re doing their part by just paying dues once a year and that’s all. 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 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 to deal with. But the times 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 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 by-laws 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 I know that the District Advisor would step in and start leading the President and the 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, she reached out to me for advice.
My advice to her was a little 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 out there to help PTOs.
My ultimate recommendation
So if you are thinking about leaving PTA to become a PTO, don’t. No really, I highly, highly, highly, highly recommend against it!
Even if you know the best ways to run an efficient, well-organized PTO with well 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. The fail-safe that PTA provides is simply too good to pass up.
I know not everyone reading this is going to agree with me, but we can talk about it like friends in the comments, so let’s get at it!