The Mackinac Center for Public Policy commissioned a survey of Michigan parents who exercise public school choice. In May and June of 2017, a total of 837 parents were surveyed by telephone.[*] Respondents were made up of a diverse cross-section of families who currently enroll their children in public charter schools or in conventional public schools outside their district of residence.[†] As the primary day-to-day users of these educational options, their insights into their experiences are important for policymakers and other influencers to consider.

The survey gauged parent satisfaction with their public school choices in three ways. First, respondents were asked to grade their child’s current school of choice. The result reflects an observed phenomenon that parents are somewhat more satisfied with a school of their choosing than an assigned school.[19] Half of respondents rated their school of choice an A and another 30 percent gave their school a B. As a comparison, only 62 percent of parents of school-aged children nationwide give their local public schools an A or B.[‡] A nearly identical share of Michigan’s general voting population shared that assessment, as measured by a 2016 Mackinac Center survey.[20] The rate of parents using choice who assign their school a failing grade matches the rate assigned by Michigan voters more generally, and by all parents nationally.

Graphic 1: What Grade Would You Give the Overall Quality
of the School Your Child Currently Attends?
 - click to enlarge

Second, Michigan parents exercising public school choice rated their expectations of their child’s educational attainment. The survey question asked: “Overall, how has your experience with public school choice affected how far you expect your child to go in his or her education?” In response to this question, 65 percent said choice has helped increase their hopes and expectations. Of the remainder, four times as many (28 percent) indicated no difference in expectations compared to those who said it had lowered their expectations (7 percent). African-American parents and parents in households that earn less than $25,000 a year were more likely to report a positive result compared to other respondents.

Graphic 2: Overall, How Has Your Experience with Public School Choice Affected How Far You Expect Your Child to go in His or Her Education?
 - click to enlarge

A third survey question asked respondents whether they would recommend to other parents that they participate in a public school choice option. About 61 percent said “yes,” compared with 16 percent who said “no.” The rest were undecided. Survey respondents’ overall positive levels of satisfaction matches up with more extensive findings of charter school parents at the national level.[§]

Graphic 3: Based on Your Experiences with School Choice, How Likely are You to Recommend School Choice to Other Parents?
 - click to enlarge

Survey respondents also shed more light on the factors that motivated them to participate in a school choice program and that informed and influenced their decision. Six possibilities were presented as candidates for “the most important [factor] in helping you make the best possible decision about selecting a school.” Overall, the leading answer provided by 31 percent was conversations with other parents.[¶] African-Americans and Asian-Americans also put a great deal of stock in websites containing school performance data. A small but significant number of parents credited an in-person visit to the school or meeting with school leaders as a decisive factor. School fairs and online or broadcast advertisements rated as the least influential ways to gather useful information, according to these parents.

Graphic 4: Of the Following Six Factors, Which One was the Most Important in Helping You Make the Best Possible Decision About Selecting a School?
 - click to enlarge

The survey also asked parents what was the most important factor when they considered making the choice to enroll in a school other than the one assigned to them based on where they live. A school’s “academic program, educational philosophy or teaching method” (38 percent) was the factor most commonly referred to by survey respondents. Different programs that might attract parents include things like the Montessori teaching methodology, a STEM-focused school or a strong emphasis on fine arts or performing arts. The next most popular answer was “academic performance or test scores” (30 percent), suggesting that a lot of parents are choosing a different school in the hopes of boosting their child’s academic performance. Other factors that were significant but less prominent include smaller class sizes (15 percent) and safety and disciplinary concerns (10 percent).[**]

Graphic 5: Of the Five Following Factors, Which One Strongly Influenced Your Decision to Choose a School?
 - click to enlarge


[*] The 837 survey respondents identified racially as follows: 69.1 percent Caucasian, 23.4 percent African-American, 3.8 percent Asian and 3.6 percent Hispanic. The sample was also nearly evenly divided among four annual household income brackets: less than $25,000 (25.1 percent), $25,000-$74,999 (26.5 percent), $75,000-$150,000 (24.3 percent), and over $150,000 (24.1 percent). The 837 respondents resided in 106 different Michigan school districts. Of the 106 districts, 69 were part of the 168 districts studied for current SOC practices. Five hundred (60 percent) of the 837 respondents came from those 69 districts.

[†] Due to an error in survey data collection (and possible confusion among some respondents), useful distinctions between charter and Schools of Choice parents could not be made. Some charter parents aren’t aware that their school is indeed a charter school. However, there is a clear self-recognition among parents who have made an active choice not to attend their assigned neighborhood school.

[‡] In the 2017 Education Next survey, 62 percent of 2,170 parents interviewed assigned an A or B grade to their local schools. A Phi Delta Kappan poll released in 2017 revealed 71 percent of self-identified public school parents made the same assessment of their oldest child's school. Martin R. West et al., “The 2017 EdNext Poll on School Reform,” Education Next 18, no. 1 (2018), https://perma.cc/ AC2L-RQF2; “The 49th Annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools” (Phi Delta Kappan, Sept. 2017), https://perma.cc/HG7U-LSTW.

[§] See Samuel Barrows, Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West, “What Do Parents Think of the Their Children’s Schools,” Education Next 17, no. 2 (2017), https://perma.cc/W3SD-V6CN. Analyzing a sample of 1,571 parent responses to the 2016 Education Next survey, the authors identified charter school parents as being significantly more satisfied than district-school parents on six of eight key school characteristics: teacher quality, school discipline, expectations for student achievement, safety, values instruction and racial or ethnic diversity. On the other two characteristics, school location and school facilities, satisfaction levels were statistically similar.

[¶] A 2011 survey of Detroit parents produced a similar finding. Respondents most commonly listed their networks of family and friends as information sources for school selection. Thomas Stewart and Patrick J. Wolf, “Understanding School Shoppers in Detroit” (Michigan Future Inc., Feb. 2012), https://perma.cc/GC4U-39ZD.

[**] These trends differ a little from previous measures of Detroit parent opinion. The 2012 Michigan Future Inc. survey found that more experienced school shoppers placed higher value on measurable academic performance, while potential school shoppers were more motivated to find better “safety and discipline.” The 2014 CRPE survey similarly found that parents with more formal education were much more likely to prioritize academic quality in choosing schools over safety and location. Thomas Stewart and Patrick J. Wolf, “Understanding School Shoppers in Detroit” (Michigan Future Inc., Feb. 2012), https://perma.cc/GC4U-39ZD; Ashley Jochim et al., “How Parents Experience Public School Choice” (Center on Reinventing Public Education, Dec. 2014), https://perma.cc/F4PJ-L6GE.