The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Education Reform Charter Mania Hits Detroit

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.

Published on December 19, 2013 3:40 pm
  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    This is exactly how a free market makes things better. It’s the “feedback of competition” that forces continuous improvements in Quality, Service, and Price. This mad scramble to convince parents that their kids will be better schooled at one school over another, is what is missing from the education monopolies all over the rest of the country. Detroit has just revealed a silver lining, in a couple of years the best K-12 schools in the country will be in Detroit.

    • Fred

      Not necessarily, JL. Schools could attract students by relaxing standards so that every student gets good grades, by cheating on standardized tests so that students look better than they are, and in other ways that appeal to parents but do not result in better education for their children. It is naive in the extreme to think that alone among human institutions the free market is perfect.

      • Kehvan

        I’m laughing to hard to mount a serious response to you… I’ll check back in awhile to see if someone’s done it yet, and if not, I’ll try to if I can stop laughing at you.

      • William T Quick

        Not perfect, perhaps, but better than any other economic mechanism yet devised for valuing goods and services.

      • cpaforerp

        That sounds like a regular public school to me. Also, if a private or charter school produces bad results, colleges and employers will took askance at its alumni.

      • teapartydoc

        Markets are markets. They make no claim to perfection. In fact, they make no claims at all. People make claims about markets, just as you have done. What a market is is a mechanism whereby knowledge gained about whatever commodity is available in that market is dispersed and churned by the people engaged in using that market. The degree to which the information gleaned from the mechanism benefits those engaged depends on the size of the market and the depth of information available. The fallacy of progressive thinking is that this kind of information can be abstracted and predicted by a “brain trust” and foisted off on an ignorant public. Just how bad the results of this fallacy are depends on the degree of interference and the size of the market involved. The greater the interference, the more distorted the market, the bigger the market, the more destructive small amounts of interference are. The history of the world is replete with examples. The biggest lies in the universe are those that say they can create a system that works better than a market. Think about what you just said, look in the mirror, and slap yourself as hard as you can. You deserve it.

  • Pete

    “… in a couple of years the best K-12 schools in the country will be in Detroit.”

    Impossible!