If only every parent knew this secret place where they can make the biggest difference in their child’s education.

Far beyond the principal’s office and the school cafeteria where the monthly PTA meeting is held, this is where the real decisions about your child’s education take place.

It’s the school board.

Maybe because school boards seem to exist far outside the realm of your child’s day-to-day school life, it’s easy to lose sight of how they impact our children’s education. Yet, hot-button issues like school safety, test scores, and school budgets are in the hands of this small group of people that make up your local school board.

Here’s the good news: The effort it takes you to work with the school board in your area is relatively minimal. In fact, your involvement in your local school board will probably take no more time than if you were to volunteer at your school’s bake sale.

Jump aboard the school board bus with these five easy steps:

  1. Understand why school boards matter

    Not convinced they’re a big deal? How about this doozy of a fact? The country’s 95,000 school board members are entrusted with overseeing the education of some 50 million students and with deciding how to spend more than $600 billion every year.

    Not only does each local board make essential decisions about where your taxpayer dollars go towards your child’s education, they also have the power to decide on the many policies that shape your child’s elementary, middle, or high school. Textbooks? It’s a school board thing. Dress code? School board, too. Closing an under-enrolled school or opening a state-of-the-art STEM magnet? School boards are in the driver’s seat on this, too. And last but certainly not least, they appoint your superintendent.

    Most important of all: They work for you. Your school board, made up of only three to seven people, are there to provide support and guidance to parents and guardians. When a school isn’t meeting the students’ and parents’ needs and all the available channels have been exhausted, you can take up your issue with a higher authority — the school board. As stated on the National School Boards Association website, “Your school board is accessible to you and accountable for the performance of the schools in your district.”

  2. Get educated about your school board

    Not sure if your school board is effective? Start by checking this list of characteristics of an effective school board. Then research your school board by Googling local newspapers and reading up on their track records. If you’re not impressed with the job your school board is doing, this isn’t a lifetime gig: School board members are replaced every four years. Terms are usually staggered so that at least some members are replaced every two years. This is an enormous opportunity to be part of the change you want to see at your child’s school and district.

  3. Go to a school board meeting

    True, it’s not Monday night football. But you might be surprised by how important and even riveting some school board meetings can be. Is there a safety issue that’s been making the news at your local schools? Are math test scores suddenly plummeting in your district? Are there concerns that the public school funding is being mismanaged?

    To learn where and when board meetings are held, check online: Every district must post this information. If you’re unable to attend a meeting, you can read the minutes online or listen in. Most districts air the meetings on local cable stations and radio stations.

    It helps to understand why and when you would take your own issue to the school board. If your concerns are falling on deaf ears at your school — from whether the reading syllabus isn’t sufficiently challenging to the disrepair of your school’s playground — that’s when you should take it to an open school board meeting. Legally, during the public comment period, you are permitted to speak about an issue.

  4. Take your issue to the school board

    If you want to make a really big change, consider taking your issue to the school board in an organized way. If you aren’t sure where to start, your school’s PTO or PTA president, who often works with board members, may help you locate the most helpful person to speak with on your school board. Start by arranging a meeting with a chosen school board member. Doing this may take some persistence since school board members, particularly in a large district, are juggling a lot of duties.

    Find other parents who share your concerns since more voices can make a bigger impact. When you meet with the school board member, come prepared with any material that will help your cause: data, research, and solutions. Find out in advance about other schools that have implemented successful programs, or dealt with related problems, and outline the steps that lead to a solution. You can request that you and your group is put on the agenda for a presentation at an upcoming board meeting.

    Attend a few school board meetings before making a presentation. Introduce yourself to board members if possible. At the end of meetings, most boards allow time for public comments, generally limited to a three-minute presentation of each topic. Even if the issue is emotionally charged, keep your presentation rational and positive. As with team sports, using foul language or screaming are definite taboos and not the route to affecting change. It will probably take perseverance, meaning attending several meetings and respectively contacting your school board representative for a resolution. If the school board green-lights your proposal, be ready to take action in a timely and positive way.

  5. Vote in local school board elections

    It’s a head-scratcher. We care so much about our children’s education. Yet when it comes to making our voices heard, 90 percent of voters don’t vote in school board elections. That means that compared to voting for a U.S. president, senator, congressperson, or even your mayor, your vote counts for far more than in other elections. And the stakes are high: This is your child’s education, after all. If your school and your district’s schools are not listening to their constituents who pay their salaries, it is your right as a citizen to be one of the (sadly few) voters to select new board members.