These days, choice is a word that’s frequently heard in discussions of public education. If parents don’t like the local traditional public school, they can investigate charter schools, private schools, or neighboring public school districts with open-enrollment options. However, all this choice has resulted in hard times for some of the nation’s public schools, which are facing dwindling student populations and subsequently dwindling funds.
In an attempt to fight the tide of dwindling student populations and to prevent more students from leaving, some public schools are putting their efforts into marketing campaigns designed to sell prospective students and their families on the virtues of their neighborhood public schools. Below, we look at this surprising trend.
Why Do Public Schools Need Marketing Campaigns?
Although school districts can attribute some of their declining enrollment numbers to inter-district transfers or students choosing to attend private schools, the reality is that the explosive growth of charter schools is the main cause of public schools’ enrollment woes.
According to USCharterSchools.org, there are currently more than 3,500 charter schools in the U.S., and more than one million public school students attend a charter school rather than a traditional public school.
Charter schools are very popular with politicians from both sides of the political spectrum, and many state legislatures are pushing to lift caps on the number of charter schools that are allowed. The result is that more and more students are enrolling in charters rather than traditional high schools.
Charter schools often spend large amounts on recruiting and marketing efforts, which puts pressure on neighboring traditional schools to market themselves as well. The New York Times reports that The Harlem Success Academy network, a coalition of charter schools, has “bright orange advertisements” at bus stops around Harlem and sends “full color mailings” to prospective parents almost every month.
The result of declining enrollment in public schools is declining funds. As the Wall Street Journal reports, state funding for public schools is based on student attendance, and each student typically brings in $5,000 to $8,000 annually. This means that when a school loses a student, it experiences a real financial loss.
Threat of Closure
Finally, schools must worry about being shut down if their enrollments drop too low. The New York Times reports that New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, who is known for shutting down a number of traditional public schools and opening charters in their stead, often says that students are “voting with their feet” when they leave a school to attend another. Klein uses dwindling enrollment as one of the criteria for shutting a school down.
What Are Schools Doing to Market Themselves?
Blogs and Web Sites
One New York elementary school worked with a marketing firm (which offered its services free of charge) to develop a blog and a website, as the New York Times reports. Although the school had experienced a 25 percent drop in enrollment since 2005, it did not see a decrease in enrollment this year upon implementation of its blog and website.
Contracts with Marketing Firms
In 2009, the San Antonio Independent School District signed a $180 billion contract with a marketing firm that had also worked with grocery chains and hotels. The marketing plan for San Antonio’s schools, as the Wall Street Journal reported, was to include “radio spots, billboards, Twitter feeds, online banner ads and promotional videos on YouTube.”
But $180,000 doesn’t seem like much compared to the amount that the St. Louis, Missouri public schools are willing to spend. St. Louis may be home to the most aggressive marketing campaign for public schools. The public school district in St. Louis has experienced a 40 percent decline in enrollment in the past decade, has a budget deficit of $53 million, and has been forced to close 14 of its schools. Considering these facts, perhaps it is understandable that the school district decided to set aside $1 million for marketing efforts.
Schools Must Recognize a New Age
Ultimately, the trend towards public school marketing signals an important recognition on the part of schools that students and their families have choices, and they are increasingly able to have a say in their own educations. In a prescient 1999 report on privatization in education, the MacKinac Center for Public Policy noted that “in an era of expanded educational freedom, families must now be treated as customers with choices and not as captive audiences.”
The number of principals and superintendents who see their students as captive audiences is undoubtedly dwindling even faster than the student populations in some of these struggling public schools. Only time will tell, however, if professional marketing techniques are successful for public schools.
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