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Marketing for public schools once might have involved printing flyers for the school play or sending messages to parents to encourage them to participate in the annual bake sale. Today though, increasing competition and the expansion of the market for charter schools have confronted many school systems with dwindling enrollment numbers, and thus less federal and state education dollars that they can spend on their programs and educational services. The answer, for many districts, is a concentrated marketing push.lo-res_65329756-s

More than 2.5 million U.S. children attend charter schools, which are privately run but publicly funded. This level represents a more than 200 percent increase compared with about a decade ago. Thus, though public schools still educate the vast majority of children, their overall enrollment rates have been decreasing. In some districts, the drop is substantial, requiring the district to impose hiring freezes and deep budget cuts.

Faced with a newly competitive market, some schools are adjusting their offerings and seeking ways to make their benefits clear to the people who consume their services, namely, students and their parents. For example, outside of Dallas, the Grand Prairie Independent School District introduced dedicated campuses for fine arts and technology, single-gender schools, and ballroom dancing classes. It also spent an estimated $824,000 over the course of five years to make sure that parents knew these options were available.

Another school district outside of Minneapolis similarly spreads its marketing efforts over time: Every three months, it sends a bag of infant supplies to families who have just had babies, including baby bibs with the district’s logo. Then for the next five years, it sends the children a card on their birthday, so that by the time the child is ready for kindergarten, the school district has been a constant presence in his or her life for five years already.

These examples both come from relatively small school districts; for massive organizations like the Los Angeles Unified School District, personalized birthday cards might prove impossible. After losing approximately 14,000 students to charter schools, the system predicts that it will fall about $100 million short on its budget, preventing it from hiring thousands of new teachers.

Asked about these impacts on the public schools system, one representative of the California Charter Schools Association calls the outcomes “healthy,” arguing that the increased competition from charter schools requires public schools to perform better. But proponents of public education shy away from applying a comprehensive marketing view to schooling, worried that students need to be guaranteed the service, rather than being competed over as sources of dollars.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does marketing services that represent a public good, like education, differ from marketing of other types of services?
  2. Should competition be encouraged in the public education sector? Why or why not?

Source: Tawnell D. Hobbs, “Public Schools Turn to Marketing to Win Back Students from Charters,” The Wall Street Journal, October 28, 2016

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