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School Choice and Parent Decision Making

Module by: Jeremy Gilliam. E-mail the author

School Choice and Parent Decision Making: How and Why Detroit Parents Choose Schools

Jeremy Gilliam

Eastern Michigan University


Detroit has one of the deepest education markets in the country with a wide array of publicly funded traditional and charter schools both within the city limits and across community borders. Based on the theory that good schools will be supported by parents “voting with their feet,” the Detroit public education system now resembles what choice proponents envisaged decades ago, as schools compete for and market to students and parents exercise power through choice. What has not been fully explored is the process through which parents choose schools, the information on which they rely and its quality, and the factors they find most compelling in exercising their choice. The question is whether Detroit parents are rational actors making choices consistent with the market-as-reform theory underlying the policy.

School Choice and Parent Decision Making

Over the past several decades, school choice has developed from a concept to a pervasive feature in public education. Milton Freidman is generally credited as the intellectual force behind the market-based reform of public education, proposing the concept in a 1955 essay reproduced in his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom. Friedman remains a hero among free market advocates, libertarian thinkers, and school choice proponents. The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice was formed in 1996 to advance school choice across the nation. Milton and Rose Friedman (1996) wrote at its founding:

This foundation is the culmination of what has been one of our main interests for more than four decades: improvement in the quality of the education available to children of all income and social classes in this nation, whether that education is provided in government or private schools or at home. (para. 1)

Yet as Weissberg (2009) points out, improvement of school quality was not Friedman’s interest in 1955. Friedman’s essay on school choice was concerned with personal freedom, greater efficiency, pinning educator salaries to market forces, and a greater variety of schools. Weissberg correctly observes that nothing in the essay addresses what is now the primary justification cited by choice advocates: improving poorly performing schools and helping underachieving, and especially poor, students. Choice advocates today argue that market forces and schools freed from the bureaucratic constraints of public management are the solution to the nation’s education achievement problem.

In the years since Friedman’s article and especially over the past two decades, parental choice of schools has been implemented through intra-district choice, inter-district choice, and charter schools, and to a more limited extent school vouchers. The utility of school choice as an improvement strategy for low-performing public schools has been promulgated into federal law, with the No Child Left Behind Act including conversion of a building to a charter school and closure as two of a few approved solutions to persistently low achievement. In Michigan, market-based reforms continue to dominate public education policy. A November 2012 memo to state officials from Richard D. McLellan of the Oxford Foundation, a public policy organization founded specifically to study the state’s school funding system and make reform recommendations to governor and legislature, includes the following passage:

Technology is moving faster than any policy will be able to anticipate or react. One of the major goals of unbundling education is to create more consumers of education services, where there are not consumers. The largest segments of consumers of online learning are those pupils seeking credit recovery or catching up so as to graduate on time. The pupils were “nonconsumers” in the traditional education system. By turning these pupils into full consumers of education services, we will improve our workforce by creating more career and college ready pupils. (personal communication, November 5, 2012)

The problem the Oxford Foundation has identified is high school students who have dropped out of school or are not on track to graduate. This is a serious and longstanding challenge for educators, and has far reaching consequences for individuals, communities and the state. For the Oxford Foundation, the reason these students struggle is their lack of full empowerment as consumers, and the solution is greater choice and flexibility. The efficacy of market based choice as an improvement strategy, and the wisdom and rationality of the educational consumer, are implicit and assumed.

The past twenty years has seen a sizable shift in the manner in which education services are provided within the city of Detroit, with belief in the efficacy of parental choice at the center of the reforms. With the exception of Washington D.C. and New Orleans, which as a result of Hurricane Katrina and the desire to return children to school quickly hastened the implementation of charter schools across the city, Detroit has the highest percentage of charter school enrollment in the nation and the second highest total charter school enrollment, behind only Los Angeles (A Growing Movement, 2011). Detroit is also among the poorest cities in the nation with median household income of $25,193 in 2011, and among the least educated with 24.6% of adults over the age of twenty five without a high school diploma and only 12.3% holding a bachelor’s degree or higher (United States Census Bureau, 2011).

The theory underlying parental choice as a systemic improvement strategy is that well- run schools will be supported, and poorly performing schools will not, by parents “voting with their feet,” and that parents have the information, knowledge and judgment to discern what is best for their child (Weiss, 1998; Hanushek, Kain, Rivkin & Branch, 2006). Yet after two decades of choice-based reforms the process by which Detroit parents reach a decision remains uninvestigated. It is not known how parents navigate the education market, what factors are preeminent in the decision process, what information they have available to them, and whether their decision to change schools fit with the underlying theory of good schools being supported over poorly performing schools.

There has been some investigation of this question in other regions. Using a qualitative methodology in researching parent selection of high schools in Philadelphia, Nield (2005) found that parents had little formal, useful information about area high schools; relied on friend and family networks that varied considerably in their quality; knew little about the high schools’ programs, orderliness, and enrollment selectivity; and differed in their ability to advocate for their child through the admissions process. Hanushek, Kain, Rivkin & Branch (2006) found that parental decisions to exit schools was associated with poor school quality as measured by State of Texas ratings, despite limited dissemination of published information. Fossey (1994) found that parents exercising inter-district choice in Massachusetts tended to send their children to districts with higher socioeconomic status and higher average student performance. In an analysis of parental choice with respect to magnet schools in St. Louis, Goldring and Hausman (2010) found that 59% of parents choosing a magnet school gave their community schools a letter grade of C, D or F, and were concerned most with academic, values, and safety. In a review of elementary school choice in Alberta, Canada, Bosetti (2004) found that parents did not rely on rational choice theory but rather a mixture of rationalities and methods in making a decision. For most parents, school choice was governed by their social network, talks with teachers, and school visits rather than objective performance information. Burnett (2006) found that African American families in Boston who chose a charter school had a low opinion of their assigned district schools and a desire for stronger academic programming, safety and discipline, and teacher attention.

Research Questions

The questions to be investigated are as follow.

  1. What is the reasoning process undergone by parents who chose a particular charter school?
  2. What factors most influenced their decision?
  3. What information did they rely upon?
  4. Did their decision fit with choice theorists’ underlying theory of good schools being supported over poorly performing schools?


These questions are best answered using a mixed method approach with both qualitative and quantitative components.


The quantitative investigation will utilize a survey instrument developed for this research intended to quantify parental decisions and provide a robust set of data. The survey instrument will include both fixed choice and open-ended questions. In addition to inquiries concerning the factors influencing their choice and the sources of information, the instrument will inquire about the respondent’s child’s immediately preceding school. The gathering of this information will provide data to evaluate whether an individual parent made a decision to leave one school and attend another in keeping with choice theorists’ central argument that parents will “vote with their feet” and support good and eschew bad schools. The presently attended school and immediately preceding schools’ ranking on the Michigan Department of Education’s published top to bottom list will provide independent data and ranking information. The survey instrument will be distributed to three charter schools serving approximately 3,200 Detroit students. The researcher will utilize existing relationships with area charter school leaders to deliver and ensure the return of a high percentage of parent surveys.


The research will also include a qualitative component in order to gain a deeper understanding of parental thinking and the experience of choosing a school. Seven survey respondents will be chosen and asked to participate in an interview with the researcher. The researcher will use purposive sampling to identify two to three parents in consultation with school administration who, based on information and belief, represent different levels of social class and involvement in the school program. Subsequent participants will be found using snowball sampling or, if that strategy is not workable, continued purposive sampling as previously described. Interviews will be conducted either at the participant’s home, office, or at the school in the researcher’s office, based on the participant’s preference. Parents will be contacted by telephone and asked to participate. When a telephone number is inaccurate, or the parent fails to respond or refuses to participate, another parent will be randomly selected. Parents agreeing to participate will then receive a letter of invitation and consent form through which they will agree to participate in the study.

Each participant will be interviewed individually in a face to face setting. The researcher’s intent is to probe the thought processes and information participating parents used in choosing the school, and what factors and characteristics mattered most to them. While survey research can be helpful in gaining knowledge, these interviews will permit much deeper understanding of parent thinking and processing than surveys capture. Once completed, the researcher will transcribe the interviews and look within them for common themes within the data. The interview will probe the parent’s reasons for choosing their child’s present school, reasoning process, and the information relied upon and its sources. The interview will also probe the extent to which the parent feel empowered and as a consumer in a market system.


School choice, empowerment of parents as purchasing consumers, and the creation of a pseudo market has dominated urban public education policy for the past two decades. Market-based reforms rest on the theory that parents and students will support good and reject low performing schools, and that this will drive overall quality improvement in the loosely coupled system. In theory, a parent will have accurate, objective, and timely information about all area schools, understand his or her child’s needs and how they can be met, identify the best school, and support this school by enrolling his or her child. A rational, informed consumer imbued with good judgment and the capacity to act is the driving force underlying the policy. Yet research has primarily focused on student performance outcomes and the measurement of school performance in a choice market. Too little is known about the behavior of parents within the market.

This study will examine parental choice of schools in the city of Detroit, one of the deepest educational markets in the nation, to gain a better understanding of the reasoning process undergone by parents who chose a particular charter school, the factors that most influenced their decision, the information they relied upon, and whether their decision fit with choice theorists’ contention that good schools will be supported over poorly performing schools.


A Growing Movement: America’s Largest Charter School Communities [Pamphlet]. (2011). Washington, DC: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Bosetti, L. (2004). Determinants of school choice: understanding how parents choose elementary schools in Alberta. Journal of Education Policy, 19(4), 387-405. doi: 10.1080/026809304 2000227465

Burnett, Y.G. (2006). Exploring the Meaning of “Good Education:” Why Black Parents Choose Charter Schools in the Metropolitan Boston Area. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Massachusetts Boston, Boston, MA. Retrieved from http://search.proquest .com/docview/304920438?accountid=10650

Carpenter, D. M., & Winters, M. (2012). Who Chooses and Why in a Universal Choice Scholarship Program: Evidence from Douglas County, Colorado. Unpublished manuscript, University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Retrieved from http://www.uccs .edu /Documents/coe/newsandevents/who%20chooses%20and%20why-DCSD.pdf

Fossey, R. (1994). Open enrolment in Massachusetts: Why families choose. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 16(3), 320- 334. Retrieved from /1164403

Friedman, M. with the assistance of Rose D. Friedman. (1962). Capitalism and freedom. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Goldring & Hausman. (2010). Reasons for parental choice of urban schools. Journal of Education Policy, 14(5), 469-490. doi: 10.1080/026809399286161.

Hanushek, E.A., Kain, J.F., Rivkin, S.G., & Branch, G.F. (2007). Charter school quality and parental decision making with school choice. Journal of Public Economics, 9(5-6), 823-848. doi: 10.1016/j.jpubeco.2006.09.014.

Lauen, D.L. (2007). Contextual Explanations of School Choice. Sociology of Education, 80(3), 179-209. Article Stable URL:

Neild, R.C. (2005). Parent Management of School Choice in a Large Urban District. Urban Education, 40(3), 270-297. doi: 10.1177/0042085905274538.

United States Census Bureau. (2011). Selected population profile in the United States, Detroit city, Michigan [Table]. Retrieved from

Weiss, J. (1998). Policy Theories of School Choice. Social Science Quarterly, 79(3), 523-532.

Weissberg, R. (2009). Correctly understanding "school choice". Society, 46(4), 324-332. doi:


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