July 25, 2016; DianeRavitch.net

At last week’s Republican Convention, Donald Trump, Jr., boldly told us how the marketplace outperforms government in providing effective public education: “You know why other countries do better on K through 12? They let parents choose where to send their own children to school. That’s called competition. It’s called the free market.” Just let citizens become customers. Let service providers act like vendors, strip government from the equation totally, and all will be well. Choice and competition are the secrets to educational success for all children.

To unleash the market forces that will drive quality higher and increase efficiency, the argument follows that these citizen-customers must be able to learn about the choices they can make. Thus, service providers and vendors must effectively market the benefits of their “products” to potential customers.

In a recently published paper by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Professors Sarah Butler Jessen (Bowdoin College) and Catherine DiMartino (Hofstra University) looked at how schools have taken to the task of selling their services and identified areas of serious concern.

Using a sample of New York and Boston schools that included schools run by charter management organizations (CMOs), independent charter schools, public magnet schools, neighborhood public schools, and private schools, the authors were able to compare messaging and marketing effectiveness. Here’s what they found:

Schools affiliated with high-status and well-funded organizations, particularly CMO charter schools, such as the Success Academy, Urban Assembly, or KIPP networks tend to have highly glossified Web sites, and very active social media and YouTube outlets. In short, CMO charters are much more in control of the marketing message than other schools—even autonomous charter schools—and are attempting to create a perception of quality through marketing.

Effective marketing comes at a cost. Websites, social media, and effective messaging require skilled personal, management attention and money—all resources in short supply for many public schools. Back in 2010, the New York Times found that “for most schools, the marketing amounts to less than $500, raised by parents and teachers to print up full-color postcards or brochures. Typically, principals rely on staff members with a creative bent to draw up whatever they can.” Compare this to the Success Network in N.Y., with a six-figure marketing budget. If marketing matters, the ability pay to do it effectively must be equally supported.

No matter how much weight we put on how the message is communicated, the message itself also matters. Jessen and DiMartino examined published mission statements and found significant differences. CMO-managed schools focused heavily on academics and totally omitted community from the message. For traditional public schools, community was as important a feature as academics.

Does it matter if all public schools do not have a common mission?  If we want—again, in the words of Donald Trump, Jr.—“all Americans to have the same opportunities,” can we achieve that if our schools have different philosophies and priorities?

If some parts of the public education marketplace are not able to market themselves effectively, is that an indicator of poor educational performance? Will this difference result in a selection process driven not by educational quality but by sales skills? Do we want schools to divert scarce resources from teaching to selling? For those who are convinced that the marketplace will level the playing field, answering these questions must be a high priority.—Martin Levine