An urban wasteland in the industrial Midwest shows how a portfolio approach to public education can inspire even the most disadvantaged families to “shop” for the right school.

Nearly three-quarters of parents in Detroit have shopped for a school for their child, whether the options included a traditional public school, a magnet school, a charter school, or a private school, according to a think tank in the Wolverine State called Michigan Future Inc. Moreover, fifteen percent of the families the think tank surveyed opted for a public school outside the district.

“Seventy percent are actively shopping rather than letting the government tell them where to go—that’s huge,” Michigan Future President Lou Glazer told The Detroit News.

Glazer says the study represented one of the most aggressive attempts nationally to further explain how families, especially those who are low-income, think about their school options in an urban area. Researchers spent last summer knocking on the doors of 1,073 households to collect data on 1,699 schoolchildren, eighty-five percent of whom were black and sixty-eight percent of whom came from households where incomes that fell below $30,000.

The Detroit school district has lost more than 100,000 students in the past decade, but fifty-five percent of the families interviewed said they sent their children to a district school. Twenty-three percent opted for charter schools. The fifteen percent of families who chose schools outside Detroit took advantage of a state law that allows cross-district enrollment.

Forty percent said they chose their school based on its academic performance, but safety and discipline ranked high among respondents, too. Eighty percent said they had access to a vehicle and thirty percent said they would drive at least eight miles to get their kid to the right school.

Not surprisingly, moms are the most likely to make the final school choice, and they generally talked with other parents about their options.

The Motor City is fortunate to be in a state that has taken a sometimes unorthodox approach to school choice.

Detroit isn’t frequently a part of the policy debates that feature major “portfolio” districts like New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and New York. But the Motor City is fortunate to be in a state that has taken a sometimes unorthodox approach to school choice. In addition to charter schools, Michigan students have enjoyed a generous “Schools of Choice” law that allows them entry into an adjacent school district as long as that district is willing to take them.

The law is voluntary for districts, something Gov. Rick Snyder tried recently to change. He wanted to mandate that districts must open up seats to students in other school systems as long as they had space. His effort stalled in the Legislature, mostly because of the resistance found in the wealthier school systems that border Detroit, including Grosse Pointe, which went so far as to pass a resolution that sought to preserve the “personal sacrifices” of its citizens who opted to invest “in premium housing stock.”

The impoverished families of Detroit cannot invest in “premium housing stock,” but they do have the wherewithal to shop for the right school and the drive to make uncomfortable sacrifices. Their actions should guide policy makers to enable more low-income parents in other cities to make the same choice.

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