Friday Freakout: Are Schools that Use Marketing Tactics Bad?

As someone who experienced the 1990s as a teenager, I’ll confess that I listened to my share of Dave Matthews Band. In one song, backed by light guitar and keyboard, Mr. Matthews opines about “a typical situation in these typical times: too many choices.” 

That line popped into my head when I recently read about a report in Louisiana that purported to show schools do not respond to competition by improving their academics.

Rather, the report’s author, who surveyed 30 school leaders in New Orleans, determined only one-third of school leaders said they were competing for students by making academic changes, yet 25 of the 30 were competing using traditional marketing techniques such as signs, incentives and home visits.

To which I say, with all the sass I used to muster when Dave Matthews Band was  topping the charts: Duh.

One commenter went so far as to say:


The fact schools are competing in any way for students is a good thing for students.

Again, about 33 percent of school leaders reported adjusting their academics to attract and retain students. If that number was only, say, 2 percent before school choice sparked competition, that’s a huge change for the better.

Opponents of school choice often claim there are no “bad” schools; some schools just have “problematic” students. If that’s true, isn’t it a good thing competition inspired 83 percent of schools to better advertise their services to the student populations they know they’re best equipped to teach?

And just because the schools are using more mainstream marketing practices doesn’t mean that’s why families are making the choices they make.

And here’s the thing: It’s not just charter and non-public schools showcasing their strengths using tips and tricks from Marketing 101. Traditional public schools are and should be using these practices, too.

McDonald’s tries to sell me something from their dollar menu every time I flip on the television.

Hasn’t swayed me yet.

The fact schools are engaging in tactics we experience every day in every other part of our lives should not compel us to go back to a system where students were stuck choice-less and voiceless with whatever school happened to be nearby.

And here’s the thing: It’s not just charter and non-public schools showcasing their strengths using tips and tricks from Marketing 101. Traditional public schools are and should be using these practices, too.

The public school district we chose for our daughter has billboards all over the city encouraging families to enroll their kids. They host and promote open houses and information sessions to generate interest, and the resulting conversation has been healthy and helpful.

As a parent, I find it disrespectful that anyone would think I’d select a school for my child based on receiving a gift card or hearing a radio commercial. That’s just a way to get my attention.

You could offer me a lifetime supply of dark chocolate-covered cherries and a trip to Disney World, but it wouldn’t convince me to send our kids to a school that didn’t work for them.

I’m ultimately going to pick a school based on what my kids need, how they learn, what environment works best for them and other considerations, some of which I’ll confess have nothing to do with academic offerings. I challenge any opponent of school choice to find a parent who wouldn’t do the same for their children if given the means to choose.

Now, if there’s room for self-criticism among those of us who believe all families should have the ability to select a great school for their kids, it’s that we need to do a better job of making it easy for parents to find all of that information in one place.

Tools like Institute for Quality Education’s Opportunity Calculator and’s database are a strong start, but we need them in every community in every state.

I worry The Washington Post’s endorsement of a skewed report that calls marketing “glossification” will be used to turn back the clock, harming students who don’t just want, but need, school choice to learn and even break the cycle of poverty.

Instead of abandoning a competitive selection process and decrying schools’ marketing efforts, we need to make sure families have great resources to decide what works best for their kids and empower them to choose it.

The problem isn’t too many choices. It’s not enough trust.