The differences are bigger than you think!
The technical differences between a PTA (Parent Teacher Association) and a PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) are fairly simple. The National PTA is a formal membership organization headquartered in Chicago with a 105-year history. Local groups that choose to belong to the PTA must pay dues to the state and national organizations and abide by state and national group rules. In return, they get member benefits, and they get a voice in the operations of the larger organization. The National PTA maintains a Washington, D.C., lobbying office, and most state PTAs advocate at their respective state capitals, as well. The PTA carefully protects its name, so that in theory only dues-paying members of the group can call themselves a PTA.
The PTO, on the other hand, is a decidedly independent organization, much like charter schools. PTO believes that every school is unique and has individual needs and goals. PTO provides resources and tools — it represents the thousands of groups that choose to remain independent of the PTA.
Whether your school group is called a PTO or a PTC (Parent Teacher Committee), or an HSA (Home School Association), PTO offers support and tools for your success. It encourages single-school groups that operate under their own bylaws and concern themselves with the goings-on at their building or in their town only.
Nationally, PTA has not been a strong supporter of public school choice. Although there are charter schools that affiliate with PTA, the majority of charter schools opt for PTO. The “independence” of a PTO seems to be a better fit for charter schools. Despite its national profile and terrific name recognition, the National PTA actually represents only about 24 percent of the country’s parent groups. The remainder have chosen to go (or remain) independent.