Scholarly Article Synthesis

Much research is being done on the charter school debate across the nation, a topic critical to families in Detroit, where the proliferation of choice has created a splintered system. Researchers Christopher Lubienski and Jin Lee from the University of Illinois, in a piece published in the Peabody Journal of Education, investigate mission statements of different types of schools to explore if charters contribute to a competitive market aimed at diversification. In the Journal of School Choice, Daniel Hamlin of Harvard University presents research on self-selection bias for parents who choose schools for their children, leading to skewed data on charter school performance. Both emphasize the critical role of the parent in a child’s educational outcome, and explore how that relates to a system built upon choice.

 The Argument for Charter Schools

The overarching dream of the charter school movement is to find “a way to provide improved options for low-income minority families ‘stuck’ in underperforming schools” (Hamlin, 2017, p. 52). In a traditional district-based system, these students would have no alternatives to local schools plagued by concentrated poverty and lack of funding. Additionally, a charter system hopes to “embrace market mechanisms such as choice and competition” in order to incentivize reform and improve schools (Lubienski & Lee, 2016, p. 64).

This short, pro-charter video highlights many of the arguments given by pro-charter advocates, as well as giving a background about charter schools. However, keep in mind their bias when watching, and the fact that they are prone to overstating success.

Flaws in the Detroit Charter System

Both articles explore the limitations of these two major goals of school choice, which can be reduced to two major issues:

  1. Unequal ability/likelihood to seek out choice. Hamlin studies characteristics of those parents who elect to send their children to charter schools, hypothesizing that there are many relevant factors even within homogeneous race and class groups. He finds that “choosers” are more likely to have “access to transportation, experience, [larger] professional and social networks, orientation towards choice, parental involvement, and home stability” (Hamlin, 2017, p. 70). These findings imply that “school choosers [have] wider access to key social resources and greater inclination to participate in their children’s education,” which gives their children a leg up and biases statistical comparisons of schools in the charter debate (Hamlin, 2017, p. 70-71). This implies that “empowerment may be restricted to parents who have the inclination and social resources to participate in school choice” (Hamlin, 2017, p. 73), diminishing charter schools’ actual ability to equalize the educational playing field for all children. Additionally, Lubienski and Lee find that “charter schools may be making efforts to enhance their market positions by targeting more academically skilled applicants rather than by promoting diverse educational options,” further denigrating the goal of providing good alternative schooling options for all children.
  2. Lack of differentiation between charters. Lubienski and Lee hypothesize that in order for competition to reform education, families must have access to accurate information about school values and intentions (2016, p. 64). In Detroit, there are way more seats in schools than students and 80% of charters are for-profit, so there is extreme competition for students (Lubienski & Lee, 2016, p. 65,69). Although this competition should incentivize diversity in options, Lubienski and Lee find a homogeneity of school mission statements, which “discourages prospective parents and students from engaging in incentives to maximize their choice,” and thus diminishes the impact of charters on reform (2016, p. 73). Another flaw is that the economic theory behind choice sees parents as “rational decision makers” but they often prioritize schools for reasons other than academics, making the lack of differentiation all that more disappointing. (Hamlin, 2017, p. 58, Lubienski & Lee, 2016, p. 66).


Hamlin, D. (2017) “The types of kids we get are different—The distinguishing                                              characteristics of school choosers in Detroit, Michigan”. Journal of School                                            Choice, 12:1, 52-79.

Lubienski, C., & Lee, J. (2016). “Competitive Incentives and the Education Market: How Charter                  Schools Define Themselves in Metropolitan Detroit”. Peabody Journal of Education                            ,91:1, 64-80.