A few months back on a local blog, the blog author and guests wrote and responded with some indignation about a local school district hiring a “marketing firm.” “Why would a school district need a marketing firm?” they asked with annoyance.
“Surely this money should be spent in the classroom! This is an outrage!” Grumble. Grumble. “Oh, and by the way the superintendent makes too much money and all administrators need to be fired.” Grumble. Grumble.
Being a blog that mostly caters to angry-at-local-politics folks, or people that are just angry in general for having to pay any taxes at all for anything, the echo-chamber cacophony of agreement crescendoed into a roar of annoyance and outrage. Soon, every response was based on agreeing the blog entry itself, with little or no reflection or critical thinking. Anyone trying to counter the argument was immediately branded a suck up, a traitor, or insulted as being “out of touch.”
Rational discourse was not welcome there. No need to respond if you disagreed or had an alternative point of view. The collective minds of the blog mass was already made up. The responses to the blog post went something like this:
“If those schools would just do their jobs, they wouldn’t need a marketing firm!”
“If the schools are losing students, so be it. If they were any good, they
wouldn’t be losing anyone!”
“They didn’t need marketing firms in my day! And look how well I turned
“Get off my lawn! And fire the superintendent!”
“Yeah, I agree with everything he just said. Ditto!
As EdChoice put it in an article about education marketing: “Shame on schools for trying to get students in their classrooms! Everyone knows those students should just show up, sit down and learn regardless of whether the learning environment is right for them.”
The original kernel of the blog post was actually a good question: “Why would a public school district would want to hire a marketing or “branding” firm?”
Actually, if you dive just a little bit deeper into the topic, “marketing” is not such a bad idea especially in these days of school districts that are under attack from a variety of forces: private schools, home schoolers, angry politicians, but mostly privately owned charter schools. For a public school district to hire a marketing firm to make sense however, you have to think critically about WHY a district would want to market it’s services. It comes down to the reason ANY business or organization would want to market itself: Getting more customers.
In many school districts across the nation, educators are faced with a multitude of forces aligning up in ways that school districts in the past 60 or so post WWII years probably would never have had to think about. Those include:
Loss of students:
In public schools, the students in the seats are the way that the schools make their money. More students mean more money. Less students mean less money.(link)
Think of students like a business thinks of customers. One district in the city has been losing students at the rate of about 1000 per year due to several reasons including major demographic changes in the city. As the oldest school district in the area, the base population is getting older and moving away from the city center towards the outskirts of town where the newer houses, stores, entertainment, and parks are.
Those “outskirts” also are home to other schools districts. Families moving to newer neighborhoods are moving away from the district. Older folks just don’t have babies plain and simple. The post WWII baby boom which fueled the rise of large urban school districts has given way to suburban sprawl and the relocation of younger families to less expensive outlying communities.
Legislative processes fighting against public education:
In the past, there was a strong bipartisan legislative ethic that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, to give it a Star Trek spin. Recently in Texas, along with quite a few mainly Republican, Tea Party controlled states like Kansas and Wisconsin, the legislature has decidedly become anti-public education. The needs of the well heeled few and corporations are becoming more important than the many.
A recent Texas Tribune article sums up the ed funding battle this way:
“The funding challenge facing districts like Kelton, as well as the unique pot of money they are set to lose in three months, stems from decisions by state officials made over a decade ago. In 2006, the Legislature compressed tax rates by a third, after the Texas Supreme Court ordered them to alleviate the high property tax rates in local school districts. They also created a state aid program to make up the extra revenue districts lost by lowering tax rates.”
In their Tea Party fueled fervor, the Texas legislature (along with MANY other GOP controlled state legislatures) has cut funding for students, cut taxes that paid for education, added funding for charter schools, made raising taxes much more difficult than in the past, and generally have decided that public education is not the investment in the future as they once viewed it, although the vast majority of them are products of the exact public school system they say is “broken.”
The idea of the collective good in education has gone on life support and with it, equitable funding. Districts are left with trying to pull funds from an ever increasingly smaller pot. Rich districts in rich suburbs of Houston and Dallas thrive, while those in the Valley, along the Rio Grande and rural areas have to try to succeed using an increasingly smaller pot of funds to draw from.
Charter schools, no matter what anyone might say otherwise, take funds from public schools by taking students from public schools. (Books have been written about whether charter schools are academically better or not, but in terms of simply sucking money from traditional public school districts, they are poison.) A student that goes to a charter school takes their funding with them.
In El Paso, not only brick and mortar but online charter schools will dig into the “butts-in-seats” funding that is the life blood of public education. The math is simple: If a student is attending an online school, or another school outside your district, you don’t get money for that student.
Charter schools, many backed with not only public funds as well as private funds, can afford to market themselves and have done so aggressively using professional marketing firms, also know as “branding firms.”
How does a school district fight back against demographic changes, a hostile legislature, and a new opponent that does not have to play by the same rules that you have to?
One way would be to just sit back and think that the issue will correct itself over time and go away. This is a poor strategy, much like allowing your opponent to run up the score in the first three quarters thinking you will be able to outscore them in the fourth.
That strategy rarely works. As poor a strategy as it may seem, it is one that many school districts seem to think is viable. Do nothing. Just teach. It will all be fine.
The problem is that while you sit back and do nothing, your competition is advertising about how good they are, with slickly produced ads that beckon parents to give that shiny new charter school a chance.
Consider this ad for Odyssey Charter Schools:
Slick, modern, and tempting. Ads like that are done, for Charter schools, by marketing companies, or branding companies. One should ask, why is it okay for charters, who use public funds, to create marketing, but not for public school districts?
One study in Pennsylvania found that charter schools spend on average, $48 per student per year on advertising.
IDEA Public Charter Schools are in the El Paso area.
They are not shy about advertising:
Another way is to create a series of strategic moves that by themselves seem disparate, but when put together make a cohesive plan to bring students back into the district.
The first step is, of course, to have a strong academic program, and to provide services to students that might not be found elsewhere. In El Paso for instance, the EPISD is addressing that issue by bringing in several programs that are unique to the area: International Baccalaureate schools at the middle school level, as well as becoming the largest New Tech High district in the US. The district is also becoming a 1:1 in all secondary campuses, among other things, like having a dual language program at all 54 elementary campuses across the city.
Another step is to allow students from anywhere to come to your district. This is called “open enrollment” and it allows students from anywhere to enroll. Surprisingly enough, in Texas, public schools default to a “closed enrollment” model where students only living in the boundaries of the school district are allowed to attend.
A district has to declare itself “Open Enrollment” to allow other students to attend. Once you have good academic programs in place (that is the most difficult and takes the most time by the way), and you have declared yourself an “open enrollment” district, the students will just start piling into your schools right?
Like any business, you need to advertise. You can have the best product in the world, but if no one knows about it, no one will buy it.
You no doubt have been in a business that has great “word of mouth;” that mystical advertising method where people tell their friends who tell their friends who tell their friends about it. That is a great strategy at first, but after a few months, that business, if it relied solely on people telling their friends how wonderful it is, probably is on financial ropes and is headed for disaster.
They have to advertise some other way, otherwise they will fail. The “build it and they will come” mentality for business and now public schools only works in the movies with ghost baseball players and Kevin Costner.
An article in Forbes Magazine stated exactly why school districts need to market themselves:
“For generations, the thought of a school district hiring outreach help was anathema. Especially during the Baby Boom, educators had one constituency to court: parents. With half the homes in many communities having school age children, the need to fund public schools was obvious. Now, however, it’s not unusual for many districts to have fewer than 30% of households with children in the public schools. Losing their core parental constituency has forced school boards and administrators to embrace social media and move beyond traditional newsletters to explain their value to the broader community.”
That is exactly why school districts need to market themselves. What is the point of creating modern learning spaces, having great academic programs, and not telling your larger community or people looking to move into your area about it?
And telling your community is more than just sending out tweets and posting on Facebook. It is an entire broad based strategy that encompasses every type of media available; something marketing firms do.
The educational landscape has changed. And with it, the need to tell the community about their services has changed as well. School districts can no longer afford to be in a passive role when it comes to marketing their wares.
The idea of marketing education is not a new one. Public universities have been marketing their programs for years and no-one bats an eye.
Here is an example of my local university marketing it’s athletic programs:
Even publicly funded community colleges, market themselves because they know that they are in competition with tech and trade schools as well as with universities:
As an article in Public School Review stated last year:
“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.”
Families must be treated as customers with choices and not as captive audiences.
Public schools, if they plan on growing, or even just staying where they are, must advertise and market themselves, like any business. Advertising requires marketing, and good marketing requires hiring people or companies with those exact set of skills. School district are mostly made up of educators, not marketers.
Large scale marketing is a separate set of skills that most educators or school districts, simply do not have.
The irony of all this, especially on the blog that I mentioned earlier, is that those same angry anti-everything commenters will be the first to say something to the effect that “school districts need to be run like businesses.” When a school district does EXACTLY that, the same angry readers get even angrier.
Marketing is no longer a “nice to have.” It is a “need to have” for public school districts. To think otherwise would be a fool’s errand.
Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback. Feel free to leave a comment. Read his previous columns here.