What is a PTA, PTO or PTSA? Is There a Difference?

Parents and child at a table in a classroom

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You know you want to be more involved in your child's school, but you aren't sure what the PTA, the PTO, or the PTSA is. Are they the same thing? Why so many different acronyms? What does this mean for you and your child's school?

Almost every school has a parent-teacher organization. Knowing which one your child's school has tells you about that school's organization. Many of these differences are subtle at the local parent level—you may not notice a difference until you take on an officer or other leadership position.

Understanding how the organizations differ can help you understand the significant picture role these groups play in the education community.

Parent-teacher member organization names do sound similar. The letters used for the local school organization will tell you if your local group is connected to a national group, or chooses to remain completely independent. These differences have a range of effects, including how membership dues are handled and how each group supports education and child-related policies.

Here are the three letters to look out for in these acronyms, and what they tell you about your school's organization:

The "A" in The PTA or Parent Teacher Association is a National Association 

Whether the last letter is an "A" or an "O" tells you if your school's organization is a chapter of a national organization or an independent, self-contained group.

If your school's organization ends with an "A," as in PTA or PTSA, than your school's parent group has chosen to be a member group of the National PTA. The PTA is a single, nationwide membership non-profit group with state and local units that have existed for 120 years. 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 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 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 reasonably small, with the national portion being around $4. State and school level dues vary between states and schools.

PTA has paid staff support and a wealth of information available to its members and leaders. Members and leaders have access to free online training, a biannual magazine full of tips and organization news, and access to state, regional and national conferences and support participating locally in nationwide events. These include the Reflections student art contest, with local regional and national winners, and the annual Teacher Appreciation Week. Individual schools that have goals that align with national PTA have much to gain for the small member fees paid—often $10 or less per person.

The "O" for PTO, or Parent Teacher Organization, Are Independent Groups

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

Since PTA is a registered name, any parent-teacher groups not affiliated cannot use the name PTA or PTSA. PTO is the title most commonly used when groups are not part of the national PTA. PTO's may or may not charge dues—the school's organization decides it. 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 community laws.

Schools that have a PTO have greater flexibility, as they do not have to conform to any national group. While these groups do not get support from the National PTA, there are resources available to guide local independent parent-teacher groups. The website PTO Today is designed to provide information to PTO's and local PTA's alike.

The "S" Welcomes Students in PTSA (Parent, Teacher, Student Association) and PTSO (Parent, Teacher, Student Organization)

Often both types of local organizations—PTA or PTO, recognize students as 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 a vital 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 critical partnership between school, family, and community. Studies have consistently shown these partnerships have a positive impact on academic success.

Word From Verywell

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. If you are curious about the specific reasons your child's school community has chosen to be a part of the National PTA or an independent PTO, your local leaders should be able to answer your questions.

1 Source
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. El Nokali NE, Bachman HJ, Votruba-Drzal E. Parent Involvement and Children's Academic and Social Development in Elementary School. Child Dev. 2010;81(3):988-1005. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01447.x

By Lisa Linnell-Olsen
Lisa Linnell-Olsen has worked as a support staff educator, and is well-versed in issues of education policy and parenting issues.