Increasing parental involvement in schools is the single most important factor in improving education in the United States, the governor of Missouri said Wednesday.

That involvement should begin at the policy-making level and continue through implementing processes and assessing performance, said Gov. John D. Ashcroft, who was in Utah to address the national PTA conference Tuesday."You can't expect parents to be involved on a wholesale basis without policy involvement," Ashcroft said during a Wednesday morning in a news conference in the governor's residence.

An growth in non-traditional families and working mothers presents an obstacle to parental involvement in schools, the governor said, but not an insurmountable problem.

Ashcroft, who also served as chairman of the Education Commission of the States, said the country's education systems need more than an infusion of money to resolve their problems.

"What we are spending is not a factor. What we're getting is. You can't measure educational progress by what we spend. Some of our worst systems spend more money per pupil than others."

Better utilization of resources, such as school buildings, can help provide a better education for less money, he suggested. Other states are looking at Utah in its drive to enhance school utilization, he said. Extended school years and longer days are other approaches to efficiency.

He said other states are also eying Utah's experimemt with block grants, which allow districts to spend their state money where local leaders feel it will do the most good.

Ashcroft praised Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter as a leader in the reform movement and innovative approaches to improvement in education.

Although the Reagan administration has taken a lot of criticism for its education policies, it is likely to go down in history as generating more interest in education than any previous administration, Ashcroft said. The Nation at Risk report, despite perceived weaknesses, set off unprecedented introspection and study of the nation's education and has been the impetus for change.

In Missouri, AIDS education has been left to local districts, Ashcroft said. (Utah's State Board of Education just approved curricula to be implemented statewide). The two states are similar, however, in making abstinence from high-risk sexual behavior the underlying philosophy in AIDS instruction.

School reform must include changes in how teachers are trained and in trying to keep the best teachers in the schoolroom rather than shifting them into administration or losing them to other occupations, Ashcroft said. Various approaches are being used to assure teacher competency.

Criticisms that vocational education is getting the short shrift in the push for educational reform may be correct, Ashcroft said, but emphasis on improvement in basic education should meet vocational education needs as well.

"More employers are saying to me, `Give us people who can read, write and compute. We'll tell them how to attach the wires,' " Ashcroft said.