PTA & PTO: More Similarities Than Differences

Although fundamentally different from one another, a PTA & PTO share a common similarity of aiding their teachers and families, and in turn, contributing to the betterment of their communities.

This post aims to detail the aspects that both deal with in day-to-day operations, and squash the stereotypes to potentially help the undecided few with adapting the structure best-suited for themselves and their school community.

DISCLAIMER: This article in no way endorses one over the other, and presents each in a way that allows you, the reader, to determine which system best fits your values and those of your community.

Similarities (Day to Day Operations)

  • Leadership & Committee Chairs: PTA & PTO both have Presidents/VP/Treasurer, and committee chairs responsible for aspects of their respective groups.
  • Member/Contact Management: Registration and management of their members is the same with one caveat… PTA requires membership fees whereas a PTO has the option to defer.
  • Messenger: Both communicate in-person at meetings or via phone if necessary, and many use their imaginations when building newsletter and email campaigns.
  • Directories: The magna carta of every parent-teacher group, PTA & PTO alike will use this in print and digital to help everyone stay connected (play dates, class parties, etc.)
  • Sign Ups: Volunteers are the driving force of every PTA & PTO, and sign ups are synonymously effective for weekly happenings and annual events.
  • Fundraisers: Beyond membership fees, both must be creative when raising funds for their non-profits. Some may offer online options where others only accept in-person donations.
  • Notebooks: Like a directory, only for internal organizational use, a notebook tracks every aspect of the operations. Event notes, budgets, sponsors, tasks & reminders, and volunteer summaries.

Differences (History & Structure)

  • State and National PTA Fees: PTA requires dues be paid by the association to get the benefits. A PTO is grassroots and not associated with a national syndicated organization.
The History of PTAs & PTOs

On Feb., 17, 1897 — in one of the first instances of social activism at the time — two revolutionary gals by the name of Alice McLellan Birney and Phoebe Apperson Hearst gathered more than 2,000 parents, educators, workers, and legislators for the first convocation of the National Congress of Mother’s in Washington D.C., thus founding the Parent Teachers Association (PTA).

Think of it as one big party of perturbed citizens and parents that wanted better representation of, and support for, the children and educators in the country.

Since then, the association has grown into “a nationwide network of 4 million families, students, educators, and community leaders working at the school building, district, state and national levels,” reads the National PTA.org website.

Simply put, it’s a massive operation chocked-full of resources for its members who pay dues to enjoy the benefits of the association. Benefits ranging from, but not limited to: leadership and governance, reporting and financial guidance, recruitment, training, media resources, and a platform to deliver issues to leaders in Congress for adapting National change.

This is a key part of understanding the differences in organizational structure between PTA & PTO, but we’ll get to that shortly.

As for PTO, there’s really no historic date or activity that vaulted their existence into today’s society however, in recent years they have become a growing trend, albeit a generic term void of the exclusivity you’d associate with the PTA.

And, there’s really a simple explanation for it.

As communities evolve and school populations parallel that change, there are more parents who value the focus on their individual community, and don’t feel the need to buy into a national association to be able to support their students and educators.

There’s no right or wrong answer here, and one is not better than the other.

Organizational Structure of PTA vs PTO

Traditionally, both are considered — and should have legally filed for — 501(c)(3) non-profit status, yet their organizational structures are vastly different.

A PTA is going to have stricter bylaws and regulations depending on their state chapters and national requirements. Additionally, this comes with extra resources and support in the form of national and state departments that have employees supporting the mission of their state PTA’s.

Bylaws are not foreign to a PTO however, the non-exclusive organizations and groups (PTO, PTG, etc.) have more freedom to determine what their structure looks like.

Perhaps a board has created them, or they’re adapted and evolved every year with the new officers-elect. Again, this varies and depends on the specific community organization’s processes determined at inception.

As for fees and memberships, the PTA will require a member fee with a percentage of such going to the State and National PTA. With a PTO, those members can establish their own fees and what they unlock or offer members. Fees can pay for a variety of things, and this is just another thing to be customized for your community.

Final Thought

This isn’t supposed to be a unanimous verdict. It’s a presentation of two viable options that could be adapted differently by each and every community.

PTOffice works with parent-teacher groups of various shapes, sizes, and structures. And daily, we speak to members on both sides of the aisle, and some in-between (PTG, PTSA, and more).

If there’s one thing we can confirm, it’s that all of these acronyms actually share more in common than they’d lead you to believe. Sure, there are specific nuances and quirks synonymous with both. 

All members have lives outside of their respective groups, and no matter their role in the organization, value much of the same things.

They live very similar lives. Share similar experiences and hardships. And the majority just want to know how to make their volunteering easier and more effective.

PRO TIP: Before jumping to a decision, reach out to friends or family members who have experience in either.

Take the time to join meetings, and learn from leaders in both structures, and then you’ll have a better idea for what would work with your school and community as a whole.

Again, it comes down to the values of your community.

You must ask yourself if you value the support and recognition of a national association and it’s leverage over the national conversation on how to improve the lives of students and educators, or you wish to stay focused solely on local improvements and remain outside of a larger network.

No matter which you choose, be sure to have an online tool to help you manage the always-evolving, fast-moving aspects of a parent-teacher group.

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