You’ve probably met your local PTA. Maybe you’ve flirted a little: paid some dues, attended a meeting, even taken a position on the board. But how well do you really know the Parent Teacher Association?

Founded by Alice McLellan Birney and Phoebe Apperson Hearst in 1897 as the National Congress of Mothers, today’s PTA has a male president and is actively encouraging fathers to take an active role in the organization and in their children’s lives. With over 5 million volunteers in 25,000 local “units,” it’s the nation’s largest and oldest parents’ group. It also appears to be shrinking; according to Wikipedia, it boasted over 12 million members forty years ago.

Whatever the reason for that decline, its core mission of a “quality education and nurturing environment for every child” hasn’t changed. To that end, the PTA exists at both the national and local level. Nationally, the PTA Office of Programs and Public Policy in Washington D.C. advocates for political changes it believes will enhance children’s well-being, speaking out on everything from school vouchers (which they oppose) to keeping arts in the classroom (which they support.)

If politics – or the PTA’s political views – aren’t your style, you’re still welcome at your local PTA, which exists primarily to help raise funds for the school. Confusingly, not every parent/teacher association is affiliated with the PTA; joining the official PTA allows the board access to national resources like advice on solving specific problems and discounted insurance for PTA functions. Membership fees are low, and the boards sponsor school-wide events like auctions, family dinners, and other fundraisers to raise money for the school. “By fundraising and helping in the school, the PTA has the opportunity to make up for the lack of funding in any given school,” explains Erika Hess-True, a board member from Weston, Florida. “The PTA in my children's elementary school runs hearing and vision screenings, organizes volunteers in the classrooms and the cafeteria and donates items essential to running the school such as computer mobile labs and laminating machines. We also help beautify the school by donating plantings and murals in the common areas.”

While the benefits to any given school are undeniable, PTAs in wealthy communities tend to have an easier time raising money than PTAs in poorer school districts, where many parents don’t have time to volunteer and the community at large has less money to spend at fund-raisers. Some parents wish local PTAs had a wider vision. “The unit PTA is inward-looking and concerned about its own school while there are, at least in California, such major issues,” says Sharlene Liu, a PTA member from Sunnyvale, California. “They focus on fund-raisers to make up 1 – 2% of the budget shortfall and don’t concentrate on the root cause of the problem.”

Whether you’re interested in raising money for extracurriculars at your child’s school or advocating for change at the school across town, the PTA probably has a place for you. To find your local PTA or see their positions on political issues, visit