Many parents who use public schools are accustomed to just sending their child to whatever school they happened to be zoned for. But as school choice laws become more widespread, parents have more options. School choice laws allow you to pick which public school you want your child to attend, and sometimes make public charter or magnet schools more available to more families. If school choice is new to you, you may not know how to decide which school is best for your child. Take a look at some tips that can help.

Assess Your Child's Needs

The idea behind school choice policies is simple: not all schools are the same, and not all children need the same things. School choice allows you to match your child with the school best suited to meet their needs. But first, you need to honestly assess what your child's needs are.

Children who have learning disabilities or who are considered gifted need specific programs tailored to their learning differences, so if your child falls into one of those categories, you'll want to look for schools that offer programs designed for those students. But even the average kid may have a specific need that only certain schools can meet.

If your 5th grader plays an instrument and has been taking private music lessons for years, you may want to search for a school in your area that has a strong music program. If your child responds better to a rigid structure, you may want to look for a school with a stricter teaching philosophy, while children who are more self-motivated might do better in a school that uses a more relaxed approach.

Put Test Scores in Their Proper Place

Schools are often graded and ranked by the scores their students receive on standardized tests. But those test scores may not tell you as much as you think. A year of rising test scores could indicate a good school, but it could also indicate that the school is implementing a curriculum that focuses on teaching for the test.

When test scores don't rise, it could be a bad sign, but it could also mean that most students are already working at or near their potential and don't have much further to go – for example, school programs catering to gifted students may not see their test numbers rise much, since those students often started out with high scores to begin with. The lack of movement doesn't mean that learning isn't happening.

If you can, ask for a breakdown of test scores by student population, and take a look at the scores for students who are learning English as a second language. These students are often the most difficult students for schools to serve, so if their scores are going up, it's a good sign that the school is working hard to serve all of its students. Otherwise, take test score information with a grain of salt – it's useful information, but not the be-all and end-all.

Don't Neglect Practical Matters

Academic achievement, diversity, and specific programs that might benefit your child are all important factors to consider, but so are simple logistics. You may have the choice to send your child to any school in your county, but how practical is it to send them to a school that's an hour away from home, for example?

In many cases, if you choose to send your child out of their school zone, you'll be responsible for their transportation. Do you have the free time to drive them to school before work and be on time to pick them up after work?

If they need an afterschool program, is there one available to you near the school? If your child has a long ride home after school, or needs to spend time in an afterschool program until you can pick them up, will they have time in the evening to finish their homework, do household chores, play or participate in family time, and still get to bed in plenty of time to be up and awake for school the next day? Will they be able to participate in extracurricular activities if the school is far from home?

Keep in mind that your child's school schedule affects their whole life, not just their life during school hours. If your child is tired because they have to get up extra early and go to bed late, or if they're isolated from their school friends because they live some distance away, this can affect their school performance and general quality of life.

Choosing a school for your child is a big decision. Don't be afraid to visit, take tours, and ask lots of questions so that you can make an informed decision.