A deeper look at parent power

Getty Images/David Sacks

The annual “parent power index” published by the Center for Education Reform raises worthy questions—how much power is afforded to parents, and what can they do to acquire more? Despite its various flaws, the index attempts to quantify the extent to which options and information are available to parents so they can make good decisions for their child’s education—a useful lens unto itself.

A plethora of other groups evaluate how well states are doing on education—doling out grades on the strength of charter laws or a bevy of other education policies like funding, test scores, or teacher quality. Even if we disagree with how some scorecards are calculated or the mischaracterizations that can flow from them, such grades can be informative. They provide a look at how states compare to their peers and how policy or legislative improvements can set the right conditions for success though of course not guaranteeing it. (As we know from a long journey to charter reform in Ohio, those conditions matter a lot.)

Yet even achieving wins in policy areas I think matter most for kids—like teacher quality or school choice—offers no guarantee that such reforms will stay in place or have a fast enough effect on the children who are languishing now. What programs, resources, or supports promise to enhance parent power in an immediate way? Below are some ideas worth bringing to Ohio: some are larger scale than others; some are tried and true; some are merely personal observations about supports that seem to be missing for many families.

Grassroots parent organizations. Intermediary organizations that help parents know how to navigate and engage with the school systems and powers can take on many forms: some are focused on community organizing and winning political campaigns; some operate with the primary purpose of helping parents select between a variety of school options; some even provide wraparound supports for families, helping with educational decisions or employment opportunities. All of them engage directly with parents on the ground to mobilize toward improving schools and the day-to-day lives of families.

Better transportation. It’s one thing to have a wide range of school options, but quite another to manage the logistical realities of getting children to and from school. In many communities, long bus rides for youngsters remain a serious challenge. Some school options require parents to transport children themselves. Ideally, no family would be denied options that are reasonably close to their residence for the sole reason that they lack transportation.

Knowledge. Enhancing parent power also means closing information gaps. Every family should know about Khan Academy, top educational software programs, or apps (Bedtime Math is my own personal favorite) and the brilliant grade-by-grade guides from E.D. Hirsch on what kids need to know (or his curricular sequences available for download). These supplemental supports aren’t limited to the virtual realm, either. Every family should be aware of educational programming, free resources, or mentoring offered through their area libraries, community centers, or universities.

Easy-to-read school/district report cards and access to meaningful data. Every parent should be able to find information on the performance of their child’s school and/or district with ease. Unsurprisingly, report card information remains difficult to find, and descriptions of the data are often complex and hard to understand.

Tools to know precisely how a child is performing. Beyond being clued in about school-level grades, parents need access to student-level information about their child. How is she scoring on state exams? In which standards is she lacking? Where is she excelling? Periodic progress reports are insufficient if the goal is to equip parents to intervene or supplement in order to meet individual student needs.

Solid understanding of lottery or admissions procedures. Even well-resourced parents can find school enrollment hard to navigate. Some cities have developed common admissions systems in an effort to streamline the enrollment process—and remove barriers for low-income parents especially. Timelines, deadlines, requirements, etc. should be available, and parents should be allowed to tour schools and see teaching in action before choosing their school.

Access to… all of the small things that add up. I’m going to use this last category as a catch-all for the various supports and opportunities I wish all parents had that might empower them to be fully involved and engaged in their child’s schooling:

  • access to high-quality preschool and early learning opportunities;
  • resources necessary to help close their own educational and skill gaps;
  • consistent access to school principals, teachers, and decision makers who are fully engaged partners with families;
  • access to extra-curricular opportunities, tutoring, music/art/dance lessons, sports, and/or community service opportunities;
  • high-quality afterschool care;
  • ability to tap into well-loved public resources, like libraries, science centers, museums, and public parks;
  • having a job that enables parental involvement in their kids’ education;
  • supplemental services for speech, counseling, or any physical or behavioral needs that impede learning.


Maximizing parent power requires that we go beyond state-level legislative reform. Sound policy can set the conditions for success, and some legislative ideas—like education savings accounts—can take it a step further to more immediately empower parents. But much more attention needs to be paid to gaps in information and opportunity, resource disparities, and the fact that current educational delivery systems are simply not working well for a lot of families. Too often, that’s based on income. Yet even well-resourced families may struggle to make sense of public information on the quality of schooling or to access schools and programs that suit their child.

Readers, what else would you like to see on this list to increase parent power?

Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is a Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She works with a coalition of high-performing Ohio charter school networks, facilitating their advocacy efforts and providing research and technical assistance.