NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 18, 2009

Public schools in the United States have added professional marketing to their back-to-school shopping lists.  Financially struggling urban districts are trying to win back students fleeing to charter schools, private schools and suburban districts that offer open enrollment.  Administrators say they are working hard to improve academics -- but it can't hurt to burnish their image as well, says the Wall Street Journal.

So they are recording radio ads, filming TV infomercials and buying address lists for direct-mail campaigns. Other efforts, by both districts and individual schools, call for catering Mexican dinners for potential students, making sales pitches at churches and hiring branding experts to redesign logos.

"Schools are really getting that they can't just expect students to show up any more," said Lisa Relou, who directs marketing efforts for the Denver Public Schools. "They have to go out and recruit."

Administrators working on the public-relations push say the potential returns are high:

  • State funding for public schools is based on attendance, so each new student brings more money, typically $5,000 to $8,000 per head.
  • In addition, schools with small enrollments are at constant risk of being shuttered in this recession, and full classrooms help.

Some districts also hope a better image will entice more local business sponsorship and persuade voters to support school levies and bond issues, says the Journal:

  • The Washington, D.C., district spent $100,000 on a campaign that included radio spots and bus ads that include quotes from students who say they are glad they stayed in public school; the district's enrollment has plunged from nearly 150,000 in 1970 to less than 50,000 last year.
  • In Pittsburgh, where enrollment has dropped about 25 percent in the past decade, yard signs touted a pledge by city officials to give full college scholarships to all qualified graduates of city schools; this fall, that message will be carried by $1.5 million of donated advertising space and media airtime.
  • Perhaps the boldest marketing push is in St. Louis; administrators have set aside $1 million for pay for publicity that may include bragging about a top-ranked high school and magnet programs in culinary arts, aeronautics and international studies.

The cost of public-school marketing efforts varies widely, from a few thousand dollars to more than $1 million.  That has raised eyebrows in a few cities, especially when the public schools are making big cuts to balance their budgets, says the Journal.

Source: Stephanie Simon, "Hard-Hit Schools Try Public-Relations Push," Wall Street Journal, August 17, 2009.


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