PTOs and Political Involvement
Since PTOs are, at heart, groups of parents who are interested in supporting education, many situations arise in which the group, or members of the group, may wish to use the organization in support of a particular purpose. Because PTOs are also non-profit organizations and represent all the parents of a particular school, however, it is very important to observe certain distinctions between allowable activities that generally “support education,” and activities that are just plain political, and therefore unallowable. This can often be a very fuzzy line.
The following summary of ways in which PTOs may and may not participate in political issues is drawn from information from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and is based upon the assumption that your PTO is a charitable organization (ie has filed for and received 501(c)(3) status). For more information on laws governing charitable/non-profit organizations, see the list of links below.
- play an active role in a campaign for a legislative purpose such as a referendum or override
- seek volunteers, produce flyers, do mailings, etc. in conjunction with a legislative action
- expend funds to support the campaign of a legislative action, as long as the amount of such funds is not a substantial portion of the PTO’s budget
- discuss campaign activities at PTO meetings
- invite proponents of a legislative action to speak without the obligation to invite opponents
- reproduce and disseminate materials prepared by the city, school department and the campaign for a legislative action
- endorse overrides, referendums, etc.
- use newsletters that go home with kids to inform parents of the date, time, and place of an election, and to urge them to vote, but should not include specific endorsements of candidates
- endorse a political candidate or engage in activity related to the campaign of an individual for political office
- solicit or receive campaign contributions in a public building
- use public resources (anything paid for by taxpayers) to promote a referendum or override. Examples: copy machines, computers, telephones, fax machines, school bulk mail permits, public email systems, paper, supplies, etc.
- use a public building as a return address for political mailings or post flyers seeking contributions in a public building
- PTO members who are public employees cannot solicit campaign contributions or have their names on a mailing which solicits contributions
Campaign activities at School Events other than PTO meetings:
Principals in consultation with the Superintendent are the gate keepers for school events like plays, concerts, and curriculum nights. PTOs can hand out campaign materials (flyers, bumper stickers) outside of the building at any of these events. The principal will decide whether they can hand out materials inside the building. The guiding principle in this case is “equal access.” Both sides must have the same rights.
School Directories and email lists:
As long as the directories and lists are created by a PTO, they can be used for campaign activities. However, this is not generally recommended, since the entire listing has not been given permission to have persuasive political information sent to them and it may alienate parents to use their contact information in this way. In addition, individual PTOs may have specific policies about the use of the handbooks and lists. Any existing school bylaw or policy must be strictly adhered to.
Links to Guidance on Political and Legislative Activity
From the IRS:
- Political Campaign Activities: Restriction of Political Campaign Intervention
- IRS Bulletin 2007-25 giving examples of what political activity is and isn’t allowed by 501(c)(3) organizations
The Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance
- Use of the Internet and Email for Policital Campaigns: This bulletin summarizes OCPF’s responses to questions relating to expenditures that may be made for Internet access, the services that may be provided to candidates and committees to help them establish websites, the use of links to campaign websites, the use of the Internet to recieve contributions, and access to government websites and e-mail networks.
- Opinion AO-05-05: This opinion responds to a number of questions relating to the extent to which a PTO may be involved in a ballot question campaign. The opinion states that PTO’s may not have teachers distribute, via student backpacks, materials prepared by a vote yes group. In addition, it states that allowing distribution of materials for the vote yes group on school grounds would require those on the other side to be given the same opportunity upon request.
- Opinon AO-03-03: This opinion responds to a number of questions relating to the extent to which a PTO may be involved in a ballot question campaign.