Can School Choice Work in Detroit?

Critics of school choice often complain that parents aren’t capable of making wise decisions when selecting a school for their children, and so the government should choose for them. Many parents in perhaps the nation’s worst urban school district, however, recently showed that they are eager to find good school alternatives.

Last Saturday, parents in Detroit attended the city’s first “school shopping fair,” which featured 46 different schools making their pitch. The event was hosted by Excellent Schools Detroit, a partnership of several philanthropic and other nonprofit organizations. The group plans to host two more similar events in the coming weeks. (More information here and here.)

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At this time no one has any idea how the current Detroit Public School district can ever emerge from the fiscal and educational havoc it has created and endured. But that’s not what the parents attending the school shopping fair were focused on — they just want the opportunity to send their children to a school where they are safe and have a chance to learn.

Fully meeting that demand in Detroit won’t be easy unless radical reforms are adopted, something that becomes more inevitable as the district nears absolute insolvency. One alternative would be to establish a system of tuition tax credits covering private school expenses. Twelve states have such programs, but enacting this in Michigan would require amending the state’s constitution.

Post-Katrina New Orleans provides another model. That city has decentralized its system so that individual schools are autonomous, yet still accountable to both parents and certain state standards. State aid follows each student to the school of their choice, and parents may choose from any district school no matter where they live. Essentially, the district has been “charterized,” with individual schools operating under performance-based contracts. Unlike conventional public schools, those that fail to perform and meet the contract standards are closed.

Although a thorough study of the effects has yet to be concluded, the signs are very positive. New Orleans has essentially replaced its previous school system with a new one that is more responsive to parents and children than to bureaucrats and teachers unions.