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Nonprofit PTA sues for-profit rival PTO Today

CHICAGO – The nonprofit PTA sued a for-profit rival on Wednesday, accusing it of denigrating the established group in a bid to siphon off members – a dispute that highlights underlying tensions as parents consider changes in how they interact with their children's schools.

The National Parent Teacher Association, an iconic group that's been part of America's cultural backdrop for more than a century, has seen its membership fall by more than half of the 12 million members it had in its heyday in the 1960s. That decline, at least in part, motivated the PTA to file the lawsuit against PTO Today.

The upstart group put itself on a collision course with the PTA by setting itself up as an alternative.

The 15-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago accuses PTO Today of engaging in false advertising, trademark infringement and other deceptive practices to "further continue to encourage members to leave" the PTA.

PTA President Betsy Landers accused PTO Today's parent company, School Family Media Inc., of "disparaging PTA to drive business their way." She added that "PTA had no choice but to take legal action to protect its respected name and reputation."

The lawsuit also accuses School Family Media President Tim Sullivan of contacting PTA members "in an effort to induce them to leave" the older organization.

Sullivan, though, said his group is not to blame for PTA's woes.

"Their membership started to drop years before our company was in existence, so we are not the cause of their membership dropping," Sullivan said, adding that a call from an Associated Press reporter Wednesday was the first he heard of the lawsuit.

He added, "I don't know a single thing we are doing that is against the law."

The PTA – founded in 1897, now with primary offices in Alexandria, Va., and Chicago – has a vast network of affiliates. One of its selling points is its tremendous influence in the corridors of power from state capitals to Washington, D.C.

Massachusetts-based PTO Today, founded in 1999, offers such services as insurance, resource kits and advice to independent parent-teacher organizations nationwide. Sullivan said 90 percent of its income comes from sponsorships and advertising, including in its magazine; he declined to provide financial details.

The lawsuit says PTO Today deceptively hints it has a relationship with the PTA as a way to secure advertising for its website and magazine.

Far from trying to create misperceptions, Sullivan countered, PTO Today has sought to address public confusion over the names "PTA" and "PTO." PTA is a shortened name of the National PTA and PTO is a generic term for independent parent-teacher groups.

"That confusion existed for decades," he said. "It's not something we did."

The PTO Today website, while mildly critical of the PTA in places, also praises it for its historical role providing support that led to lunch and inoculation programs in schools across the country.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and asks a judge to order PTO Today to destroy business cards and other materials that allegedly suggest an association to the PTA.

The PTA was such a fixture of American life that it even became the subject of a hit song in the late 1960s, "Harper Valley PTA."

Now, parents have a host of established groups and budding movements, some focused largely on single issues such as charter schools, said Andrew P. Kelly, an education researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

"There is more competition for parents' allegiance than there used to be," he said.

He said some critics say the PTA has cozied up too close to teachers unions, though he said such traditional parent-teacher groups aligning with teachers was natural and "not necessarily insidious."

As a counterweight, he said, parents in some states have also begun forming what they've dubbed "parent unions."

"These new groups are making the case that students deserve better and that parents need to advocate for better," he said.

Racial rifts in the 1960s and '70s and the PTA's support of school desegregation led to a relatively quick drop in PTA membership at that time.

More recent declines stem from an increase in households where both parents work and can't find spare time for school functions. Some parents have also complained that a share of their PTA dues goes to its state and national arms instead of the local school.

The PTA president said she doesn't worry her association will lose its iconic status.

"It's so woven into the fabric of this nation," Landers said. "I'm very confident that will continue – that it's not slipping away."

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Follow Michael Tarm at www.twitter.com/mtarm

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