March 13, 2019; Houston Chronicle

Requiring our public school systems to operate more as competitive businesses and less as public services brings a new set of challenges for those who run the schools upon which that most children depend. School board members, superintendents, and principals must already maintain the quality of the educational experience; now, they also must make sure they have enough students to protect the financial health of their districts. Not only must they be able to make an effective case for adequate levels of local and state funding, but they must compete for students in a marketplace that offers many new options.

The consequences of the shift from public service to just another selection on the educational menu can best be seen in states like Texas that have moved aggressively to support the introduction of charter schools and voucher programs. While advocates still battle to rein in the charter school sector, public school districts must respond to the current competitive reality.

Case in point: Houston, Texas. According to the Houston Chronicle, the Houston Independent School District, with a current enrollment of about 209,800 students, has seen “an enrollment decline of 4,300 students, or roughly 2 percent, this academic year, and braces for a projected loss of 1,500 students next year…it also lost roughly 41,600 children who live within its boundaries to charter schools and neighboring districts.”

HISD continues to lose more students each year to charter schools, largely due to the incremental growth of KIPP Texas and YES Prep public schools, as well as the recent arrival of International Leadership of Texas. District officials also are bracing for future losses to the state’s largest charter network, IDEA Public Schools, which plans to open its first Houston campuses in 2020.

Like any good business faced with a decline in sales, HISD is trying to understand what causes families to choose a competitor so they can fix problems and effectively market their “product.” HISD Trustee Sergio Lira told the Chronicle that the school board wants “to be ahead of the curve. We don’t want to lose students and all of the sudden we’re being reactive and (doing) all this marketing to bring them back.”

To build a more informed response, “HISD plans to take a more scientific approach by partnering with the University of Houston’s Institute for Educational Policy Research and Evaluation, as well as the Houston Education Research Consortium at Rice University. The trio will analyze enrollment patterns, demographic data and community feedback to help guide HISD’s decision-making.”

The District already spends $150,000 a year on marketing and is considering increasing that investment. In the works is a new, more aggressive advertising campaign which “will feature graduates from its EMERGE program, which helps high school students planning to attend prestigious colleges and universities, on billboards located near the graduates’ home schools. The ads will prominently highlight the names of the graduates’ high schools, their university destinations and the tagline ‘Attend a Top College on a Full Scholarship.’”

Trustee Sue Deigaard captured the businesslike approach this new effort has imposed on the city’s educational leadership when she told the Chronicle “she wants district officials to show bang-for-the-buck on advertising. ‘My feeling is that it should pay for itself…Otherwise, if we’re not attracting additional students because of it, we’re actually spending money in the wrong place.’”

NPQ, citing Paul Reville, an educational policy and administration professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, has been concerned that “those who introduced [competition] for the most part claimed that it would spawn a virtuous cycle, and it has some virtuous aspects to it, but it has also spawned a competition between the charter schools and the mainstream schools for scarce public resources. If we are going to have an extended experiment with making competition available in this space, I think that’s how you must do it. People want to have competition without pain; well, pain is what drives competition.”

If Houston’s public schools meet Deigaard’s expectations, increased advertising will result in increased sales—or is that enrollment? It will strengthen the fiscal position of the district. But will it improve the education Houston’s children get? Seeing education as a product best distributed in a competitive marketplace loses the point of shared responsibility for children. Successfully attracting children from traditional public schools to charter schools, or from charters to traditional schools, does little for educational quality. Better focused strategies may hit the right buttons to motivate parents but change nothing in the classroom.—Martin Levine