School choice has fostered competition, and with that has come student recruitment, growing marketing budgets and branding for public schools.
The spring semester, January through May, is when schools tend to pick up their recruitment and marketing efforts in hopes of retaining current students, snagging new ones and securing the roughly $5,000 in revenue each child generates in state money. For charter schools, which are privately owned but operated with public money, that figure is about $6,000 per student.
School choice is no longer just between traditional public schools and private schools. The old ways of communicating with parents – sending home a flier with each kid – is no longer effective.
The new, competitive environment has school administrators and school boards trying to find the right combination of appropriate spending and return on investment.
Denise Birdwell, superintendent of Higley Unified School District, said the district spends between $30,000 and $60,000 a year on marketing and branding. She said it’s worth it because losing students to neighboring districts or charter schools will cost more in lost revenue.
“There are two sides to this world: Some people don’t want to speak about education as a business and there are others who say, ‘Why don’t you act more like a business?’” Birdwell said. “The reality is there is a business side to education and the consumer is the student.”
The competition isn’t just between traditional districts and charters. Districts compete with each other because children are allowed to cross boundaries to attend school. Arizona also has homeschooling, online instruction, a program that uses public money for students to attend private schools, and dollar-for-dollar tax credits for organizations that offer scholarships to private schools.
Before school choice, the communications emphasis was on getting information to the media and fliers were sent home with students to inform parents about school activities, said Birdwell, who has been in education for 30 years.
Branding didn’t exist for schools until about a decade ago, but has become important today, Birdwell said.
“You have to sell programs,” she said. “What is it the consumer wants and is it there to compete with those that have sprung up all around you?”
Craig Pletenik, spokesman for Phoenix Union High School District, said there are 80 charter schools within the district, 45 of them for high school kids.
The district also has to contend with New Schools for Phoenix, a nonprofit associated with the Arizona Charter Schools Association that aims to open 25 A-rated schools by 2020 to serve students in poverty. The program trains leaders who want to open a new school, replicate a successful one or reform a failing one.
Pletenik said the district spends roughly $2 per student on marketing, or $54,000 a year. He said it has bought space on billboards, sent mailers into the edges of neighboring districts and recently bought air time on a radio station to advertise “Experience Phoenix Union: High School Expo,” a student recruiting and school marketing fair that was held Jan. 24 at Phoenix College.
The expo featured demonstrations from student dance and musical groups and information booths. It aimed at showcasing all of the experiences a kid between the ages of 14 and 18 would want in a high school.
Pletenik said the district highlights its improving academic achievement. But its marketing also differentiates it from charter schools by emphasizing that it is a full-service district that still has art, performing arts, athletics, athletic equipment and offers Junior ROTC, band and numerous other extracurricular activities.
“We think in our district in particular, even though a kid might be 14 years old, we think they have a big say in where they’re going,” Pletenik said.
The district’s enrollment has increased by 900 over the past two years and is now topping 27,000 for the first time in more than 30 years, he said.
“When we talk about school choice, students and parents are still choosing our schools,” he said.
Monica Stigler, an Arizona State University graduate student who prepared a policy analysis on parent choices for the Morrison Institute, said parents from all backgrounds choose schools primarily based on academic performance. But there are host of other reasons.
For instance, she said, parents in low-income areas often choose schools based on security or crime rates, while another segment of parents, particularly single parents, might consider transportation or lack of transportation when choosing a school outside their boundaries. Tradition can also play a part in choosing schools.
Stigler said studies have shown that schools are marketing themselves using emotional themes, logos and incentives rather than hard evidence of academic achievement.
Schools might emphasize their cultural diversity or programs not found anywhere else along with their achievement levels.
“They want to highlight their better qualities,” Stigler said.
Rebecca Halonen, co-founder of Create Academy, a proposed charter school that is within the boundaries of Phoenix Union, doesn’t have much of a marketing budget. She doesn’t even have a school location yet. But she’s been knocking on doors in south Phoenix since August trying to recruit the 200 students planned for the school’s opening this fall.
The school has been given a contract to operate and is part of the New Schools for Phoenix program. It has been holding low-key community events to get the word out that it is trying to bring an arts program to a neighborhood that doesn’t have one.
Halonen said there are plans to buy radio airtime as opening day draws nearer. But for now the proposed school depends on relationships the staff and board members have in the community, as well as word-of-mouth.
Halonen said she doesn’t necessarily see the school, which will also be within the Phoenix Elementary School District boundaries, as competing with the districts. She would even like to see a partnership with a district down the road.
“We see ourselves as being able to offer something that district schools have difficulty offering,” Halonen said.