The Difference Between a PTA, PTSA or PTO

Groups of parents and teachers witha student raising hands around a globe.
What is the difference between PTA and PTO is a common question. Terry J via Getty Images

You walk into your child's school for the first time, and you see the sign-up for the PTA, the PTO, or the PTSA. Almost every school has a parent-teacher organization, but knowing which one your child's school has let's you know a little bit about that school's organization.

Parent-teacher member organization names do sound similar. There are some key differences between each type of organization. These differences have a range of effects,  including how membership dues are handled to the way each group supports education and child-related policies.

The PTA is a single, nation-wide membership non-profit group with state and local units that has existed for 120 years. PTO's are independent of other groups and usually based only at their local school site.

The PTA, or Parent Teacher Association is a National Association  

If your school's organization is a PTA or PTSA than your school's parent group has chosen to be a member group of the National PTA. This means that your school's parent-teacher organization is part of  a larger, national-level parent organization.

By choosing to be a part of the PTA, your school's group agrees to charge dues, maintain non-profit status, and not to publicly disagree with any political positions that the national PTA has adopted. National membership provides your school a voice in the process of shaping the political positions that are adopted at state and national levels of PTA.

National PTA has a lobbying office in Washington D.C.

Most state PTA headquarters also advocate to their state for the policies that the PTA has adopted.

The National PTA has specific rules for each school group. Each school level PTA must collect state and national level dues from each member. Annual dues are fairly small, with the national portion being only $4.

State and school level dues vary between state and schools.

PTA has paid staff support and a wealth of information available to its members and leaders. Individual schools that have goals that align with national PTA have much to gain for the small member fees paid.

The PTO, or Parent Teacher Organization, Are Independent Groups

Other schools may not want to participate in all of the state and national activity of the PTA. Instead, these groups want to focus solely on their own local school. PTO's are often focused on improving and supporting parental involvement and parent-teacher partnerships within their own schools.

Since PTA is a registered name, any parent-teacher groups not affiliated cannot use the name PTA. PTO is the title most commonly used when groups are not part of the national PTA. PTO's may or may not charge dues— it is decided by the school's organization. PTO's may have a different policy position than any other parent-teacher member organizations. They may be registered non-profits or adopt another structure, so long as it is within the laws of their community.

Schools that have a PTO have greater flexibility as they do not have to conform to any national group. 

PTSA stands for Parent, Teacher, Student Association and PTSO for Parent, Teacher, Student Organization

Often both types of local organizations — PTA or PTO, recognize that students themselves are an important partnership piece in supporting education.

To show their support for student involvement some organizations chose to add the word "student" to their names to show that they want students to take on important leadership roles in their organization. These Organizations that add the word student to their names often choose to have student board positions or other key roles for students.  

Despite all of the differences, these organizations share a great deal in common. They each support developing the important partnership between school, family, and community. Studies have consistently shown these partnerships have a positive impact on academic success.

Whichever organization is at your child's school, you can be assured that their main goal is one of strengthening the school itself and supporting children's education.

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