CHICAGO — The nonprofit PTA sued a for-profit rival Wednesday, accusing it of denigrating the established group in a bid to siphon off members.
The National Parent Teacher Association, an iconic group that has been part of America’s cultural backdrop for more than a century but whose membership is in decline, filed its lawsuit in US District Court in Chicago.
The PTA — with primary offices in Alexandria, Va., and Chicago — boasted 12 million members during its heyday in the ’60s but has seen its ranks dwindle to less than half that. The defendant, Massachusetts-based PTO Today, has set itself up as an alternative to the group.
The 15-page lawsuit names School Family Media Inc., the parent company of PTO Today, accusing it of trademark infringement, false advertising,and deceptive trade practices, among other allegations.
Statements on PTO Today’s website, the lawsuit claims, suggest they are affiliated with the PTA and “continue to encourage members to leave’’ the PTA. It also says the president of PTO Today’s parent company, Tim Sullivan, has contacted PTA members ‘‘in an effort to induce them to leave.’’
Sullivan said his group is not to blame for PTA’s woes.
‘‘Their membership started to drop years before our company was in existence,’’ Sullivan said, adding that a call from a reporter Wednesday morning was the first he heard of the lawsuit.
‘‘I don’t know a single thing we are doing that is against the law,’’ he added.
The PTA, founded in 1897 as the National Congress of Mothers, has a network of state and local affiliates; it contends it is influential in the corridors of power and is a collective national voice on key educational issues.
PTO Today, founded by Sullivan in 1999, offers services such as insurance, resource kits, training, and advice to independent parent-teacher organizations nationwide.
He said 90 percent of the company’s income is derived from sponsorships and advertising, including in its magazine; he declined to provide financial details.
Wednesday’s lawsuit says that by hinting it has a relationship with the PTA, PTO Today secures advertising contracts for its website and magazine.
In a statement released Wednesday, PTA president Betsy Landers accused PTO Today’s parent company of ‘‘disparaging PTA to drive business their way.’’
The PTA says it filed the lawsuit when it was unable to resolve disputes outside of court.
‘‘PTA had no choice but to take legal action to protect its respected name and reputation,’’ Landers said.
The drop in PTA membership is partly due to more single parents and working mothers who cannot find spare time to devote to school functions. Some parents have also complained about part of their PTA dues going to the association’s state and national arms instead of local affiliates.
PTO Today estimates that more than 85 percent of the nation’s nearly 100,000 public schools have some sort of parent-teacher group. About 25,000 have PTA affiliates.
On the PTO Today website, Sullivan praised the PTA for providing support that led to lunch and inoculation programs in schools across the country.
But he also suggested it occasionally strays into politics, including, he said, by opposing school vouchers. That is one reason, he said, some parent groups broke away. Sullivan described PTO Today as ‘‘apolitical.’’
Far from trying to create misperceptions, Sullivan added, PTO Today has sought to address longstanding public confusion over the words ‘‘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 lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and profits that derived from PTO Today’s alleged misconduct. Among other things, it asks a judge to order that PTO Today destroy business cards, forms, or other materials that allegedly hint at an association to the PTA.