Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Life imitates show prep 

Craig Westover is continuing the discussion of our show discussion on Saturday on school choice, including an exchange over magnet schools and a response from Liz Mische, who gets credit for being a very focused guest and easy interview. The show was so interesting that I left a couple of questions on my pad unanswered. One of them was
If public school choice was effective, why do we not see more competition between them? I'm told that there's a "gentleman's agreement" not to do this, which in the private sector goes by the name "collusion". Is there public school competition? Should we ask school districts to eschew this gentleman's agreement?

Turns out there's one that has done so, as reported in this morning's PioneerPress.

The Mounds View public school district has spent $15,000 to produce an infomercial to attract students to its schools.

Such marketing is not unusual among private schools, but it is a sign of changing times among public school districts with declining enrollments as they compete for students and the state money that follows them.

"If we can recruit three students, we have recovered the cost," said Colin Sokolowski, the district's public relations director.

Last year, the district spent about $10,000 to market its schools, an effort that helped attract 200 students. This year, district officials are ratcheting up with the video and $8,000 allotted to advertising.

If it takes that little to attract 200 students, that is suggestive that there is no competition out there. I note this in my own work frequently: Students who receive a letter from us encouraging them to be econ majors (after they've taken one of our classes and performed well) say nobody else does this.

My question remains: Why aren't more schools doing this?

Other districts, too, see the need to sell themselves, though their approaches can differ.

The West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan school district recently hired communications consultant Colleen McCarty-Gould in part because so many students in the district attend nonpublic schools. Part of her job,
McCarty-Gould said, is to get the word out that the neighborhood schools are good.

In Roseville, an advisory committee recently suggested that the district consider some marketing efforts.

Rather than take Mounds View's approach, Roseville Superintendent John Thein said he prefers to "invest our resources in programming.'' Thein says the district has attracted about 550 out-of-district students with "word of mouth" and the "good vibes" given off by students attracted to a good and diverse education.

Hopkins also is turning to marketing this year, creating a PowerPoint sales pitch set to music, spending about $2,000 for ads and inviting prospective students to look around.

Any economist will tell you that collusive agreements contain the seeds of their own destruction. What will the education world look like when these school districts compete even more? As I asked first on the show Saturday, have we got enough choice already?

Matt Abe is asking the same questions.