No more is picking a school a matter of public versus private. The choices are vast — charter, magnet, religious, independent, home school, virtual school and various combinations.
How can parents decide?
First, remember that all children are different and what works for one family may not work for yours, said Heather Lambie, a mother of two at the private Canterbury School of Florida.
"You know your child best," she said, "so you know what their comfort level is, academically and socially."
Her priority was finding a school with low student-teacher ratios so her children could get personal attention. She also looked at extracurricular activities, how technology was integrated into the classroom and how the staff communicated with parents.
Advanced degrees are great, said Lambie, who now works at Canterbury as its communications director. But top credentials don't matter, she said, if the faculty keeps parents out of the loop.
Terrie Dodson-Caldevilla, Hillsborough County's school choice communications manager, recommended parents research schools online to narrow down what ones to visit. They can find out the differences types of schools and get an overview of unique offerings, such as violin lessons, iPad usage or single-gender classes. They can look for schools with uniforms or without.
But parents shouldn't get too hung up on a school's grade when doing their research, Dodson-Caldevilla said. It's a snapshot of performance, not the whole story.
"I tell people all the time — a B or a C, it doesn't mean there's not good instruction," she said. "That's when I tell the parent, you need to see it firsthand."
School visits are a must, she said. You might even be able to bring your child on a tour to see what piques his interest. Middle and high school students may have a chance to shadow classmates at their prospective school.
Lambie likes asking administrators for parent contacts to talk to one-on-one. If your child is fanatical about soccer, it would help to chat with a fellow parent about their perception of the athletic program. You may also get a sense of whether you share the same values as other parents, Lambie said.
Parents of fifth-graders at SunFlower School, a private elementary school in Gulfport, have been swapping information they find about schools as their children prepare to graduate to middle school.
Maureen Corbett, whose daughter is in fifth grade, worked with another mother to compile a list of questions to ask when touring schools and factors to consider.
They looked at the school's diversity, its class sizes, the typical amount of homework and how bullying is handled. They also wanted to find out about academic approaches — if classes are lectures or interactive, how the school deals with standardized testing and whether it focuses strictly on grades or also on character.
Just asking those questions may prove insightful, no matter what the answers. Schools that are welcoming and open to tours and questions from visitors will usually continue to have good communication once children are enrolled, Corbett said.
Once your research is done, the decision, a lot of the time, comes down to what your gut says. Corbett knew when she saw SunFlower in person and its creative, relaxed and respectful atmosphere that she had found the right school for her daughter.
Lambie felt the same way about Canterbury. She liked the community feel to the school and the families seemed down to earth.
"Canterbury felt like home," she said.