- The Washington Times - Monday, December 16, 2002

When Hillside Elementary School, in Ashburn, Va., opened its doors five years ago, parents formed a PTA group to help children attending the new school.
The initial results proved disappointing.
"We were supposed to be getting organizational help," says Maureen Burns, the group's president. "We asked for information on how we should do certain things. We got no response or responses too late" from PTA headquarters.
After its first year, the group voted to separate itself from the PTA, transforming into a parent-teacher organization.
Ms. Burns, a 47-year-old mother of three, says her fellow parents managed nicely on their own.
"I felt we'd be better off being an organization unto ourselves," she says. "I felt we had more than enough intellect to pull something together."
As a PTO, the group helped build a running track and a program announcement sign for the front of the school. Now, the elementary school's PTO is looking to break ground on a new playground.
Few would deny the PTA, which has operated for more than a century, has helped protect and nurture the educational needs of many children. But more parents are becoming dissatisfied with the group's political inclinations, or are frustrated about sharing resources with the national nonprofit.
Independent PTOs are satisfying those concerns.
The two groups share a common goal: improve the educational lot of the country's children, but they go about it in different ways.
Local PTAs pay dues to the state and national group, headquartered in Chicago. In return, they receive member benefits like nationwide research resources and liability insurance for their various meetings and fund-raisers.
PTOs maintain their independence and have no official national body to call their own.
Perhaps the biggest factor in their favor, advocates say, is that funds raised by a PTO go directly to the school in question rather than being split up for various dues.
Ms. Burns says financial concerns were key to her group's switch to independence.
She says about a third of the money her group raised went to cover various PTA costs.
"We'd be better served keeping that money in our coffers," she says.
Myron Lieberman, the chairman of the District-based Education Policy Institute, says PTOs "are filling a vacuum" in the current educational climate.
"People don't realize how much PTOs have increased in the past five years," says Mr. Lieberman, whose group looks to bolster education through research and creating alternatives to existing education practices.
"PTAs have this hard left agenda," he continues. "They've been getting away with it, but there is more disenchantment with it."
Jan McKeever, president of the Virginia PTA, defends what some might call her group's political work.
"We're anti-vouchers because we believe public funds should go to public education," Mrs. McKeever says.
PTOs operate on a small scale that doesn't keep all students in mind, she says.
"The PTO works only for their own children," Mrs. McKeever says. "We represent all children. We serve on many different task forces in the state. It's reaching out beyond your own local school."
"That's why the tag line is 'every child, one voice,'" she says of the PTA motto.
Charlene K. Haar, author of 2002 book "The Politics of the PTA," says PTA membership peaked at around 12 million in the 1960s and has been declining ever since.
Ms. Haar says one reason for that decrease involves the PTA's political ambitions.
Those who join PTAs are "locked in to their ideas of what's appropriate and what isn't," she says.
Among the PTA's causes is opposition to vouchers and tuition-tax credits, which would allow parents to select private schools over public ones for their children, Ms. Haar says.
Having a national structure on which to fall back can be advantageous at times, says Tim Sullivan, president of the Wrentham, Mass., group PTO Today.
PTOs may never have a national body to oversee them, Mr. Sullivan says, because such a system could jeopardize their independence.
"However," he says, "a lot of independent groups are looking for help."
Toward that end, the group created what Mr. Sullivan calls a "midstep" the National PTO Network.
The network, which attracted more than 500 groups since beginning in September, provides research, guidance and reduced liability insurance rates to its members for a one-time $179 group fee.
Without this service, Mr. Sullivan says, "independent groups either went uninsured or paid through the nose [for insurance]."
He says independent PTO-style groups have existed in various forms for decades. But without a governing body to track them, it is difficult to pinpoint when they first appeared.
"PTO is usually the catch-all phrase for independent parent groups," Mr. Sullivan says. The name PTO is the most common, but other names include home-school association or parent-teacher council.
In ways, he says, PTOs and PTAs do "very similar work."
When it comes to political activism, the divide expands, Mr. Sullivan says.
"Some groups have a desire to be politically active, and their politics match the PTA's. For them, it's great," he says.
The PTA, which today has more than 6 million members, held its first meeting in 1897.
Linda Moody, president of the District's PTA and a board member of the national organization, says her group's history is full of important work, including the introduction of reduced-price and free lunches to schools nationwide.
But Mrs. Moody denies the group is a political construct.
"We don't lobby, but we approach Congress people to let them know what our concerns are," she says.
"I don't think being too political is one of our roles. We're nonpartisan," Mrs. Moody continues. "But when it comes to what Congress decides to do with children we have a responsibility to let them know what we expect."
Ms. Haar says those who would like to start their own PTO should begin by assembling parents who share their educational mind-set.
Then, decide on a specific goal for the group, such as supporting the school library or sponsoring field trips.
A fledgling PTO will have to establish some basic bylaws, and if the group raises more than $25,000 in a year, it may need to file specific tax forms, she says.
Such groups also may want to file for nonprofit status, which also requires legal assistance.
Mr. Sullivan says that even though their philosophies are different, many parents don't realize how PTOs and PTAs serve the public.
"The vast majority don't care to know the differences between them," he says. "They just want to help."

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