Detroit’s charter schools have the second-highest market share of any city in America, but the over-abundance of choice is creating a chaotic marketplace as a large number of schools fight over a declining pool of students. Charter school advocates generally view the proliferation of these schools as a success, but many Detroit residents are growing concerned about the fierceness of the competition, spurred on by a state law that gives schools $7,200 for every student enrolled. As a result, the city is full of half-empty schools that are taking increasingly desperate measures to convince students to enroll, including radio spots, advertising blitzes, and even door-to door sales. This makes for a disorganized and confusing system for parents and students to navigate. This profile in Bloomberg conveys just how chaotic it can be.
But there are also some good things happening in Detroit. Not all of the schools’ efforts are being devoted to marketing; schools are also competing by offering more opportunities and hours of instruction to improve education outcomes. Notably, the competition has even encouraged the city’s beleaguered public school system to make some changes:
Officials of Detroit Public Schools, which has more closed structures than open ones, said they’re implementing what parents want. That includes music and arts offerings and schools combined with social-service centers, such as at Marcus Garvey Academy on the east side. Besides instruction for elementary students, it offers a health clinic, pool, food bank and a parent resource office with computers and classes such as one last week on household poisons.
“You’ve got one-stop shopping,” said Principal James Hearn.
Ultimately, the purpose of a more competitive school marketplace is to light a fire under stagnating schools to do more. That appears to be happening in Detroit, where public schools have long been among the worst in the nation. In 2009 the school district posted the lowest scores in the nation on NAEP math tests taken by fourth and eighth graders. This transition period is messy, but but a few years of chaos may be necessary to fix a system that is so badly broken.