Feeling heat of competition, public schools try advertising

Some find a little communication can boost town support

It used to be that parents weighing their education options - public or private - found public school administrators about as warm and helpful as Soviet-era store clerks - and about as embracing of free market principles.

But the monopoly power of public schools is starting to crumble, and a new attitude toward recruiting, marketing, and service is rising in its place:

* In Michigan, school districts have hired advertising and marketing firms to produce everything from print ads to billboards and even banners strung along downtown streets boosting public schools.

* In Mesa, Ariz., all school employees are required to take customer-service workshops, and risk losing a portion of their pay if they don't measure up to customer-satisfaction goals.

* Near St. Louis, schools Superintendent Vern Moore's "Going Public About University City Schools" campaign will take him to some 200 face-to-face meetings this year with parents, politicos, merchants, alumni, and religious leaders to sing the praises of a public school education. Advertising on city buses is also in the works.

The newly enlivened competition is driven in large part by another "C" word, as in charter schools. Now running in 34 states, they are taxpayer-funded but managed by entrepreneurs and others outside the purview of school-district bureaucracies.

But charter schools aren't the only source of competition for public schools. So-called "open enrollment" laws are also breaking the ties that used to bind parents and students to their neighborhood schools. Free to enroll across town or even across a city, kids are doing just that.

"Even though it's still a small slice of what's happening in public education, the whole concept of school choice is making school districts rethink how it is that they stay in business," says Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform. "Suddenly, for the first time in modern history, more and more schools around the country don't have a captive clientele."

Those enrolling in charter schools or moving to public schools across town are leaving behind more than empty desks - they're leaving behind empty coffers. Most of the school-choice laws provide that funding follows the student, typically $4,000 to $6,000 per child. Thus a marketing effort that succeeds in wooing - or retaining - 200 students will bring with it - or save - more than $1 million in revenue.

Experts say it is no surprise that increased public school marketing is occurring in districts facing competition. In University City, Mo., some 30 percent of eligible students attend private or parochial schools, versus about 11 percent nationwide. Michigan has one of the most aggressive open-enrollment laws in the country. And Arizona has nearly 300 charter schools, more than any other state.

Yet, with less than 2 percent of schoolchildren nationwide attending charter schools, public school marketing and recruitment may be a trend just starting to emerge.

Alex Lee, a communications professional, was hired by the Kalamazoo school district to help stem a decline in enrollment there. He views his mission as extending far beyond placing advertisements.

"When you look at public education and the way it is funded, everybody in your community is a stakeholder, but I don't think many school systems embrace that outlook and keep those lines of communication open."

Mr. Lee launched a newspaper as part of Kalamazoo's marketing effort. The Excelsior started out as a quarterly insert in the local paper (circulation 17,000). The demand was so great it was expanded to a monthly that is mailed to all 58,000 households in the city and is supported by advertising. Now in its third year, production costs have dropped below $40,000 from $60,000, despite a fourfold circulation growth.

The marketing and recruitment drive in Kalamazoo is beginning to show results. From 1995 to 2000, enrollment was below projections and trending downward. Last fall, the district was 200 students above projected enrollment. Beyond the quantitative results, says Lee, are the intangibles: greater parental involvement in the district as well as positive attitudes and comments from teachers and administrators.

Most marketers would agree that, ultimately, no amount of advertising can sell an inferior product, and school-reform advocates hope the dash of Madison Avenue is being coupled with real improvement. "The effort to market has to begin with a review of what a school district has to offer," Ms. Allen says. "It has to be more than just superficial PR. Many of these school districts, for the first time ever, are taking a hard look at what it is they do."

Lee agrees. "I made it clear before I came on board that I'm not a snake-oil salesman," he says. "You do product before you do promotion. I'm very firm that your product must be equal to or greater than your promise. That was a concept and terminology that made school-board members and some administrators a little uneasy because they haven't dealt with it before."

Occasionally, complaints are sounded among parents and editorial writers about using public money to advertise and promote public schools.

But Karen Kleinz, associate director of the National School Public Relations Association, which represents school communications specialists, has more often found the opposite perspective.

"One of the questions we have asked [community] focus groups is, 'Is there a need for districts to market their programs?' " she says. "And overwhelmingly the response from the focus groups was: yes. They supported that and saw it as important and valid. I think there's a growing awareness on the part of the public that everyone has to compete."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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