ED 2272: Urban Education and Community Organizing
Spring 2018
Grassroots Organizing in Education Website

This website is about urban charter schools, a topic often referred to as “school choice” by those for charters, and “privatization” by those against. We focus on exploring the role that parents play in the Detroit charter school system and how that role affects children’s educational outcomes.

The charter school debate has swept the nation over the last few decades, gaining significant prominence through political debates and media attention. Before turning to issues specific to Detroit, here are nationwide arguments for and against charter school systems:


  • Create spaces for experimentation due to fewer state rules and regulations
  • Respond to market incentives, thus creating competition and incentive to improve educational outcomes
  • Give students, especially low income and minority students, an alternative to being trapped in failing neighborhood schools


  • Take funds and/or talented students away from public schools, spreading resources thinly and having a negative impact on those students remaining in district schools
  • Lack accountability, leading to questionable and varying quality;  potential that for-profit charters misspend funds
  • Overstate success based on a student selection bias
  • Difficult for parents, especially those who are undereducated, to navigate the system and find the best available option for their children

A New York Times Article by education reporter Kate Zernike details the many ways that these flaws are realized in Detroit in her 2016 article “A Sea of Charter Schools in Detroit Leaves Students Adrift.” Detroit, a city struggling with widespread poverty, has a higher percentage of students enrolled in charter schools than in any other U.S. city, with the exception of New Orleans. She describes the “story of public education [as] lots of choice, with no good choice.” Here are some of the ways she describes the flaws above manifested in Detroit:

  • More organizations can create charter schools in Michigan than in any other state: public school districts, community colleges, and universities. This, combined with no cap on the number of authorizations allowed, has lead to an “unchecked growth of charters,” with the number of new schools increasing even as enrollment in the district plummets. This means that taxpayer dollars are spread extremely thinly, with all schools struggling to make ends meet and fighting for students to enroll.
  • For-profit companies run 80% of Detroit charters and they are some of the biggest lobbyists for the perpetuation of the charter system. They are joined by prominent Republican politicians, notably including current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick.
  • The system in Detroit is extraordinarily confusing and non-centralized, which puts a huge burden on parents trying to find the best option for their children. Navigating the system is especially hard for parents who themselves went through the struggling system and were not given literacy and numeracy tools to succeed. This puts a disproportionate burden on minority and low-income students and parents, the exact demographic charters allege to help.
  • Transportation is not provided to charter schools, and the public transportation system in Detroit is lacking. This prevents many school options from being accessible to working parents or those without cars.

To learn more about issues when charter school systems remain unchecked nationwide, comedian John Oliver talks about what goes wrong:



Zernike, K. (2016). A Sea of Charter Schools in Detroit Leaves Students Adrift. The New                                  York  Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com.

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_htSPGAY7I

Cover image: http://community.anker.com/t/hello-city-share-your-story-and-win-powercore-ii-6700/58404