PTO vs. PTA?
January 15, 2010 1:32 PM   Subscribe

PTO or PTA? My kid's school (currently a PTO) will discuss switching at the next meeting. I don't see many benefits. Am I missing something?

My wife is the Vice President of the PTO at a small (300 student) elementary school. Parent participation in the PTO is weak at best. It looks like PTA is fee based. Is it worth it? How do we figure out if the school and PTA are a good match?
posted by I'm Doing the Dishes to Education (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Here is an article and list of related articles that you might find helpful.

In a nutshell, PTA is a brand name, and joining the national PTA as a local chapter means more rules and more expenses, since fees must be paid to the state/national org. "PTO" refers to any parent-teacher organization that is not a PTA chapter.

As a data point: in our suburban district, with about 30 campuses, all of the elementaries are PTA, but the upper schools are about 50/50 split. The president of a nearby middle school PTO told me that they decided to go "independent" because they didn't see the need to pay the PTA chapter fees; and, it is one of the strongest parent orgs in the district. In other words, their perspective was, "We're doing just fine on our own and don't need to join the national umbrella org."

To me the real question in your case is not PTO vs. PTA, but why is parent participation low at your campus? For the school to have a PTA membership means fees will go up, as will the number of rules and regulations to follow. I don't see how more rules and more expense are inclined to increase parent participation. But if the existing org is experiencing high turnover, challenges in management or district relations, or lack of fundraising or effective programs, the structure offered by PTA might be helpful.

If your wife's PTO board is considering a PTA switch mainly to increase parent participation, I would say the officers should first take a critical look at why parent participation is low—is it an issue of socioeconomics, which is often the #1 factor in parental involvement at school? Is the principal particularly tough to work with? Is the district having overall funding trouble? These aren't likely problems that a PTA membership can solve.

Without more information, I would say that a PTA membership will likely be helpful if the problem is strictly within the existing parent organization. Whereas if the challenges to growth and activity are external, I don't see how the added cost and regulation of PTA does anything but additionally frustrate those on the ground.

I wonder how many schools are in your district, and how do they divide up in PTO vs. PTA? Is parent participation equally low across the district? Or are other elementary schools sustaining thriving parent clubs? If so, what are they doing right that can be duplicated?

And, take (cold) comfort... participation in all civic and community orgs is down this year, as Americans go through a "civic foreclosure" as a result of the recession. So it could be a general problem, not a localized one.
posted by pineapple at 3:12 PM on January 15, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, pineapple! The school is mostly rural—60% of students get free lunches.

There have been two main issues to prompt the debate. First, we currently do not have non-profit standing. And second, there has been concern about the PTO not having liability insurance to cover events.

Any tips on how to change focus to increasing participation instead of creating more work and worries? What's bad about PTA?
posted by I'm Doing the Dishes at 4:03 PM on January 15, 2010

I was PTA president at my son's elementary school and researched switching our unit to a PTO. More on that in a bit.

The main difference between the two is that a PTA is a turnkey solution: PTA provides its members with training sessions and materials (primarily in leadership and officer roles), a huge annually updated manual filled with instructions and form templates, insurance, and support in the form of the local council staff, which often includes access to pro bono or low-cost lawyers and accountants. In exchange, your school collects and forwards dues to the PTA. PTA uses the dues, in part, to maintain lobbyists in D.C and state capitals and the bylaws of a PTA unit (unit = the group at an individual school) have to conform to the guidelines set forth by the state and national PTA. PTA is great at helping schools without a parent group launch a parent group as their membership resources take care of much of the startup details that many parents can't deal with due to time or knowledge constraints.

PTOs are not formally affiliated with a state or national orgs. Bylaws are written by the participants. Participants were responsible for researching and setting up their own non-profit status and insurance coverage. Until relatively recently, there was little support or wide-spread sharing of best practices among PTOs but fortunately that has changed with the emergence of PTO Today.

PTA will not be able to help you improve your parent participation. They can offer advice but the advice you get is little different than the advice one would get from PTO Today or advice gleaned from other online resources. If a PTO has already done the ground work in setting itself up as a non-profit, there's little to be gained by switching to PTA and if anything, your unit will lose ground as you'll now have to send money out of your group to your local PTA council.

For my own unit, we stayed a PTA due to inertia. When my son moved to a new school that did not have a formal parent group, I helped launch a PTO.
posted by jamaro at 4:10 PM on January 15, 2010

Unfortunately, statistics show that poor parents and rural parents are less likely to be involved at school (for different reasons), so there might not be much you can do there.

My specific PTA/PTO experience has been limited to the middle-class suburban community where I live now (the rural community where I grew up didn't even have a parent-teacher org), so I can't offer too much insight other than some articles I found.

Parent and Community Involvement in Rural Schools

What needs to be done to increase parent involvement in low-performing schools

One area where I have done a lot of research is civic engagement in general, and PTA/PTO falls under that umbrella. (Specifically, I am fascinated by the anomalous "bump" of civic engagement that PTA creates: people who are inclined to volunteer/serve will do so from aged 16-25, and then there is a big downward slide in activity as they get involved in career and family... with the exception of a spike when those people become parents of elementary-school-aged children! Then, civic involvement declines again until retirement)

So as an observer of the "PTA bump" and someone invested in improving civic engagement across the board, I would love to hear the outcome of what your wife's board ends up deciding. Feel free to Mefimail me or email me!
posted by pineapple at 4:18 PM on January 15, 2010

Ack, yeah, you want to get that standing and the insurance taken care of ASAP.

One thing I've found effective is simply asking my parent body what their perception was of their PTA/PTO and what they wanted out of it. I sent home a survey with each student and motivated the kids to nag their parents into filling it out by promising an ice cream sundae party for the class that returned the most surveys (I'm rarely above bribery).

The results told my that my parent body perceived the PTA as running endless fundraisers without giving back anything to the school. Many said they wanted to participate but needed meetings and announcements to be in Spanish and/or the event and meeting times were not convenient. Others said they felt they had nothing to offer (perception: participation=ideas vs labor).

In response, I recruited an outgoing bilingual parent and tasked her to pull in as many non-English speaking parents as she could. I set up regular service days, usually early Saturday mornings where parents could come in and do simple and specific tasks such as campus beautification or building a retaining wall. We did lots of micro-fundraising: penny drives, boxtops, bottle/can recycling, bake sales (hah), and raffles. And all the way through it, I made sure that our PTAs name was plastered over every event we hosted and I posted prominently placed posters on campus/sent home bilingual newsletters thanking by name each parent who volunteered for each event.

At the end of the school year, I sent out another survey and discovered that the perception of our PTA had dramatically changed. Even though we were doing many of the same events we had done in the past, the parents hadn't realized that our PTA unit had been sponsoring all of it. In short, make sure you toot your PTA/PTOs horn. Make sure the parents understand that this is their PTA/PTO and then give them ownership over whatever parts they can do.

The other thing is to fit the jobs you need done to the personalities of the parents you have. For example in my group, one parent that had zero time to come into meetings was more than happy to research and apply for local retailer affinity programs (Target, Walmart, most grocery stores have these); another parent was ballsy enough to march into stores and ask for outright donations of goods and money, another parent had a 3rd grade education himself and spoke no English but he was a master carpenter and able to build anything. We raffled off his services with his blessings.
posted by jamaro at 4:44 PM on January 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

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