Michele Foster had a simple recruiting pitch: Pay $6 a year to join the Parent-Teacher Association chapter at Desert Mountain School and thereby help improve the Phoenix elementary school.

But the money's path was slightly more complicated -- and, to Foster, troubling. Last fall, the chapter with 270 members had to pay $1,080, more than half of the dues it collected, to state and national PTA offices.

"It killed me," said Foster, then secretary of the PTA, whose son attends the school. "We were sending them money and not getting anything in return."

So this year, parents at Desert Mountain decided to disband the PTA and form a Parent Teacher Organization, a nearly identical group except that members of PTOs pay no dues to a state or national organization.

Desert Mountain is one of thousands of PTA groups that have voted to leave the national association in recent years. The PTA's national membership has declined steadily from a high of 12.1 million in 1963 to 5.9 million last year.

Fewer than one in four American schools with grades K-12 has a chapter, according to National PTA spokeswoman Jenni Gaster Sopko.

The declines in membership and dues have dealt a blow to the PTA, which was founded in 1897 and over the next century became a powerful advocacy group for measures to improve American schools. The group's influence has dwindled, education experts say.

"The PTA is not a major player on the major education issues," said Jane Hannaway, director of the education policy center at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization.

PTA officials acknowledge the membership decline but disagree that the organization has lost political clout. "We're the largest national child advocacy association in the country," Sopko said. "We're not seeing any real problem in terms of the reach of our voice."

Experts say most local groups are leaving the PTA for one reason: money. Parents increasingly say that they do not see the benefit of sending dues to a national organization when funds are urgently needed at their neighborhood schools.

Every chapter must pay the national PTA $1.75 per member and 50 cents to $5 to the state PTA. Those funds are used to lobby national and state officials to improve education in schools across the country. Some communities, such as Montgomery County, also have a county council of PTAs, which collects an additional 50 cents or so per member to advocate on the local level.

But more and more parents are deciding that they would rather keep those dues closer to home.

"We just don't see the benefit of giving our money to the PTA," said Barbara Patterson, vice president of the Parent Teacher Student Organization at Calvin Coolidge High School in the District.

In March, parents at Calvin Coolidge voted to disband their PTA and form an independent group. Many were bothered that $3 out of every $10 in dues was sent to the PTA's national and District-wide offices. Now all dues go toward programs threatened by budget cuts at Coolidge, such as the marching band and student award ceremonies, Patterson said.

Education experts classify the Coolidge group as a parent-teacher organization, a catchall term for the alphabet soup of acronyms used to describe any non-PTA parent group, ranging from the PEC (Parents and Educators Council) at Loring Flemming Elementary in Blackwood, N.J., to the FSO (Family and School Organization) at Sunderland Elementary in Calvert County.

PTA officials say they worry that the rise of PTOs will hurt public education in the long run. If parents focus only on their individual schools, PTA leaders say, there will be no national group to advocate on state and national levels for education funding.

"Look beyond the walls of that immediate school," said Esther Parker, president of the Maryland PTA. "My plea is: Let's work with our officials in public office to make sure the government is spending enough on public education."

But many parents say they believe their children will benefit more in the short term if they put PTA dues directly into their schools, according to Andrew Rotherham, director of education policy for the Progressive Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

"People look at what impacts them most immediately," he said. "Some of these big issues that the PTA [is] talking about don't speak to them on a day-to-day level."

The dues issue is compounded in some areas by concerns that the national PTA is too liberal. Some parents have complained about the group's support of sex education that goes beyond calls for abstinence, and its opposition to charter schools and tuition vouchers.

The PTA is launching an effort this year to combat the decline in membership by taking its message directly to parents. In past years, public relations campaigns were hampered because the national headquarters had limited access to the names of individual members, so it could not send mass mailings to parents.

"Getting the message delivered to the individual members was always the challenge," said Diana Virijevich, membership director for the National PTA, based in Chicago.

To address that problem, the PTA is initiating a nine-state program in which the national headquarters will collect addresses of individual members and send direct mailings to promote the PTA, Virijevich said. It also plans to send out a booklet, "The Value of Membership," to every local PTA.

Even the Washington region, one of the strongest PTA areas in the country, is facing increasing defections to PTOs.

In Maryland, membership has dropped from 245,000 to 220,000 members and from 1,005 to 967 chapters in the past three years, Parker said. Virginia had about 2,000 fewer PTA members in June than last year, although Virginia PTA President Ramona Morrow attributes the decline to challenging recruiting conditions because of Hurricane Isabel.

Still, Maryland and Virginia have among the highest PTA membership rates in the country, said Tim Sullivan, president of PTO Today, a company for parent-teacher groups that publishes a magazine and has a Web site. Nearly half of the K-12 schools in Maryland and Virginia have a PTA, according to numbers from the states' PTAs and Quality Education Data, a research and database company. Only Utah had a higher percentage of schools with a PTA, according to a study Sullivan published two years ago.

The numbers for the District are very different. Twenty-two percent of K-12 schools in the District have an active PTA, according to numbers from Quality Education Data and Darlene Allen, president of the D.C. PTA. The number of active units has dropped from 80 in 2000 to 63 this year, she said.

Disgruntled parents looking to leave the PTA are increasingly aided by Web sites and Internet message boards that give detailed instructions on how to dissolve their chapter, write bylaws for their new PTO and register as a nonprofit group with the Internal Revenue Service.

"It used to be a scary prospect to leave the PTA even if you were dissatisfied," Sullivan said. "Today it is much easier."

Cindy Cummins, left, Michele Foster, April Fortner and Lisa Wheeler helped form a PTO for Desert Mountain School in Phoenix.