Understanding School Shoppers in Detroit

Over the past few years, Detroit has undergone a host of large-scale reforms in attempts to revitalize the city’s K-12 education system: Among the more promising, Motown has dramatically expanded choice options for students. Now, under the auspices of the Michigan Future Schools and others, Detroit is set to launch three dozen new choice schools over the next several years. This unique study by Patrick Wolf and Thomas Stewart examines the school-choice shopping behaviors of parents in the Motor City and offers recommendations that bear on the next generation of choice schools. Researchers conducted doorstep interviews of over 1,000 households representing roughly 1,700 school-age children to ascertain how many Detroit parents, particularly those of low income, exercise school choice. They found that 71 percent of Detroit families have shopped for alternative schools before—though with varying levels of engagement. At present, roughly 45 percent of Motown children are attending a non-neighborhood school (with 22 percent in charters, 15 percent in public schools outside Detroit Public Schools (DPS), and the rest in magnet and private schools). Parents rely mostly on other parents and friends when they consider options and most say they value strong academics, school safety, convenience, and, especially at the high school level, extracurricular activities. They typically school-shop when their children are entering capstone grades (such as fifth or eighth). As for why many families do not avail themselves of Detroit’s school-choice options: Language barriers, transportation and scheduling issues, and parent literacy skills top the list. But there is also a contingent of parents (about 21 percent) who are “unlikely” to shop or demand choice options without a catalyst—some of whom are satisfied with or loyal to DPS. The study offers a few worthwhile if commonsensical recommendations to school-choice leaders on how to expand their services. Among them: Promote schools as part of a network (to increase brand recognition and make it easier to disseminate information), target mothers (who do most of the shopping), make open houses more convenient, and do canvassing for the schools. Too little attention has been paid to the demand side of school choice in urban districts (key for smart program expansion). This study goes a welcome distance in ameliorating that.

Patrick J. Wolf and Thomas Stewart, Understanding School Shoppers in Detroit (Detroit, MI: Michigan Future Inc, February 2012).

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