Why You Should Stop Complaining About Schools Marketing Themselves to Families

From the minute we wake up to the minute we call it a day, we’re bombarded with marketing and advertising.

Our phones, computers and televisions flicker with the latest deals. Our social media platforms intuitively know what brands we like best. Our brains are overloaded with sales pitches via billboards, bumper stickers, T-shirts, television and radio commercials.

And yet, there’s one very large industry in the United States that historically has done very little to market itself: K–12 education.

Last year, we took on the notion that schools shouldn’t operate in this space, that competition is a bad thing and that parents will be easily confused by the same tactics they routinely encounter every single day when it comes to other products and services.

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.

Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

Except it doesn’t work like that these days. With 61 educational choice programs operating in 30 states and the District of Columbia, parents across America have more options than ever before, and that doesn’t include public charters, online learning, homeschooling and unschooling.

Choice breeds competition, and traditional public schools are finally starting to understand that they can no longer bank on students—they have to woo them.

As this recent piece by Indiana Public Media reports, districts across Indiana, which operates the largest private school voucher program in the nation, are actively marketing their classrooms to consumers.

Clarksville Community Schools developed an advertising campaign with an express purpose: drive students to their district.

The southern Indiana district paid the ad agency Bandy Carroll Hellige over $160,000. The equivalent of four teachers’ salaries.

Up in Fort Wayne, which has the highest number of Hoosier students using vouchers, the district has invested in billboards, promotional items and personal outreach.

The district will spend $10,000 this summer on 15 billboards to dot the city. State funding from a gain of just two new students would pay for the billboards.

District representatives also reach out to families directly. At public places, like the public library, representatives hand out registration information and cups, rulers and pencils emblazoned with district logos.

Twenty years ago, these kinds of campaigns were nonexistent—unnecessary, even.

Parents who were able to do so moved to the neighborhoods where the schools they wanted to utilize were located. The kids registered, got on the bus, arrived on the first day and checked out of the system with a diploma 12 years later.

The landscape is different today, and schools are adapting to families who are able to make more and better informed choices.

Opponents of school choice paint these new ad expenditures as a negative development and blame voucher programs for public schools’ marketing choices. The truth is research exists on the influences parents trust when considering their children’s schooling options, and any school—including traditional public schools—decides whether to listen to those findings before spending marketing dollars on, say, billboards and swag.

We recently surveyed more that 2,000 Indiana parents who selected private schools for their children—some via the state’s voucher or tax-credit scholarship programs and some without state assistance—to find out why and how they chose their schools.

When asked for all of the sources from which they heard about their chosen private school, most parents said they were told by friends or relatives (52 percent) or had heard about the school through church (47 percent). None of the other 12 sources exceeded 8 percent, and 16 percent of parents selected “other” and provided open responses that varied.

If public schools want to retain or attract these families back to their classrooms, their advertising budget might be better spent on personal, grassroots outreach than on paid media campaigns. And the recruitment message should have little to do with test scores.

A survey of Georgia private school parents in 2013 found the top five reasons why parents chose a private school for their children were all related to school climate and classroom management: better student discipline (50.9 percent), better learning environment (50.8 percent), smaller class sizes (48.9 percent), improved student safety (46.8 percent) and more individual attention for their children (39.3 percent).

Student performance on standardized tests was one of the least important pieces of information parents used to pick a school; only 10.2 percent of the parents who completed the survey listed higher standardized test scores as one of their top five reasons why they chose a particular private school for their children.

One of the main reasons public schools are playing catch-up with their marketing dollars is a simple matter of perception and desire.

While 84 percent of parents currently utilize the traditional public school system, only 36 percent of them would do so if they could freely choose among public, private, charter or home schooling. The number of current private school families—just 9 percent—jumps to 41 percent if barriers to entry are knocked down.

Only time will tell if these new public school advertising campaigns can combat that perception and stem the exodus to other school types.

But just like in every other industry, schools can’t compete if they don’t show up, and they seem to be learning that it’s not such a bad thing to brag about your strengths