For years, people have pointed to parental involvement as the best way to improve K-12 education, yet state and local policies often limit or discourage parents from truly being involved. Instead, the government often tells parents when and how they want them to interact with their community school, assigning their children to one campus program with a take-it-or-leave-it option. There’s rarely an opportunity to discuss the child’s unique needs and learning styles. In many schools, parent involvement means taking food to the faculty lounge on teacher appreciation day, participating in the yearly PTA fundraiser, serving as a chaperone on field trips, and volunteering at special events. All of that is great, but it’s not enough. And it will never be enough to achieve the level of partnership between schools and families that creates the village we all know is essential to raising and nurturing a child to meet his or her full potential.

A better model is one that recognizes that no one knows kids better than their parents or guardians. No one knows their personality, needs, interests, challenges, and desires more than the person who sees them at their best and worst, knows their background, and experiences life with them day in and day out. Children are unique; what works for one child may not work for another. Finding a school that really fits and helps children thrive requires two things – information and options.

That’s why we should be focused on empowering families with more information about their local community schools, including academic outcomes and how resources are used to maximize those outcomes. Parents need to be able to understand how well their local schools are helping kids learn to read, do math, and understand science, history, and government. Are they learning what they need to progress to the next level? Are they performing on grade level? Are they behind? They also deserve to know how well they serve students who have special needs like their own child, whether it’s dyslexia, ADHD, or even being academically gifted and needing to be challenged. Parents want to know about the school’s culture, safety, extra-curricular activities, and the extent to which children have learning opportunities just like other kids across the country. They want – and deserve – to know how their tax dollars are being spent, hopefully responsibly, prioritizing high-quality instruction, and targeting kids’ biggest needs.

With that level of information, parents can act. They can contribute. They can effectively advocate for their children, offer ideas and solutions to improve the educational experience, and provide a healthy level of partnership and oversight to the schools that exist to serve their kids. But even with these things, some families will find that their assigned school just doesn’t meet their child’s needs. That’s where having more educational options is critical, particularly for families who don’t have the means to pay private school tuition or to have one parent leave the workforce in order to homeschool. Families need access to the public funds they pay as taxpayers to enroll their child in a school that fits. If that’s the assigned traditional public school, great. But if it’s not, they need to be able to get their child into a setting that works for them. It could be homeschool, a private school, a virtual school, a learning pod, a magnet school, a charter school, or maybe even another traditional public school with a different culture or educational program. No child should be trapped in a less than favorable learning environment by their zip code or their family’s income.

In the next few months, look for solutions that increase public transparency about school performance, school spending, and give parents access to more school choices. These policies will not only enable parents to be involved; they’ll put parents in the driver’s seat when it comes to making sure their child has the best K-12 education and highest outcomes possible.