PTA 101: What is a PTA, and How Does it Work?

Do you know the difference between a PTA and PTO? What function do these groups have within a school? Should you get involved, and what are you signing up for?

Parent Involvement is a term that parents of school-aged children hear frequently.

We have heard from education advisors that our children will be more likely to "earn higher grades, have better social skills, and be more likely to graduate high school" if we are involved in their education. Since these outcomes are what we all want for our kids, the next question we ask is, "How can I get involved?"

For a different perspective, check out a teacher's take on parental involvement.

The beginning of a new school year brings excitement, new backpacks, and mounds of paperwork for moms, dads, and guardians. The stack will include notices of book fairs, homecoming, fall break, new calendars, and often tucked in amongst the lists and flyers, an announcement about your school’s parent group. "Ah ha," you think! Parent involvement is at my fingertips. And, indeed it is, once you decipher just what type of parent group your school has and what kinds of things it does.

The good news is that these parent groups, which are also generally parent and teacher groups, fall into one of two organizational categories: They are either a PTA or a PTO.

The Parent Teacher Association (PTA)

PTAs are affiliated with one another. Your school PTA is a part of your state PTA, which is a part of the National PTA. This structure brings benefits, such as national and state advocacy on issues that matter to parents and teachers and many resources for local PTA members. The PTA website explains that these benefits range from "programs on health and safety to collaborating with teachers and community members, to fundraising." One of the goals of the PTA is to work with schools to ensure that students succeed, which such services and partnerships help to achieve through their support of the entire school community.

What else stands out about PTAs? Each association is required to have non-profit, or 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, which, in turn, allows donations made to the PTA to be tax-free for the donor. This status is usually conferred on individual PTAs through their affiliation with the national PTA once the local association’s dues are paid — the cost varies with the size of the group. These dues offset the costs of the program materials, advocacy, and organizational support mentioned above. There are roughly 25,000 individual PTAs operating throughout the U.S.

The Parent Teacher Organization (PTO)

What about PTOs? While PTAs are part of a larger national association, all PTOs are independent. They may or may not have tax-free status from the IRS, and they may or may not charge dues. All parent-teacher organizations that are not PTAs are lumped into the PTO category. If your take-home flyer mentions a Home and School Association or a Parent Communication Council, these are examples of groups that fall under the PTO umbrella — groups that are independent of the sort of overarching structure that PTAs operate within. Being a PTO does not mean that your group is without resources or without the ability to be a non-profit organization. It just means that the group can choose whether to advocate, whether to charge dues, and how to write its by-laws. In fact, there are resources developing everyday to help the approximately 55,000 PTOs in existence today.

Getting Involved

If you really want to know the nuts and bolts of your parent-teacher organization, ask for a copy of the by-laws, or the document that governs its operations. That document will tell you about the elected roles within the organization (president, vice president, and treasurer are usually on the list), the standing committees (events, fundraising, and so on), and give you a good idea about how the organization raises money and how it spends it.

You may notice that your PTO is in charge of the annual talent show or that your PTA is responsible for room parents or for helping to support the school Spanish teacher. Each school is different, and each parent-teacher group should tackle the issues that are within its grasp under its by-laws. It may be that what your group does best is resolve any conflicts that could develop between parents, teachers, and administrators, or it may be that it excels at bake sales. Ask questions! Volunteer. There is something for everyone in each and every parent-teacher organization.

Looking for a new school for your child? Check out this link to find schools near you that match your criteria.

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