Course Correction: Impacting public school enrollment–Market driven or we driven?

course correction community engagement

In the face of a recent and rapid transition toward choice, charters, and privatization, I return time and again to the question of enrollment. Specifically, what does all this competition mean for public schools, which derive a lion’s share of funding and resources from per-pupil expenditures–and what should we do about it?

My stance is firm: Systematically shifting traditional public education away from a founding bedrock of democracy and equal opportunity to a strict competitive business model will not result in the improvements we need.

Current legislative trends, such as grading schools or using metrics to compare school performance for competitive purposes, simply have not produced the right results.

Michael Diedrich, in his definition of a competition philosophy, sees its impact on school reform differently than many business leaders and choice-minded legislators:

“ … the current goal of the US school system is incompatible with the economic conditions for pure competition. Lacking pure competition, attempts to create an educational marketplace cannot be assumed to produce an efficient solution.

For a marketplace to work at all, it must meet (or closely approximate) five conditions of pure competition:

  1. A large number of buyers and sellers
  2. Homogeneous products
  3. Free entry and exit of firms
  4. Lack of transport costs
  5. Independent decision-making for profit maximization”

The market-driven framework has not systematically worked to reform schools, as supporters have promised. But, the external pressures placed on public schools by education alternatives should and will.

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Given my lack of experience in the competitive marketplace, I may have distorted my own thinking on the influence of competition in K-12 education. My own conversations on the emerging marketplace philosophy tend to focus on changes that happen outside of the system. In reality, the most effective strategy for thriving in this new environment might be to take a deeper look at what’s happening within our schools.

To understand declining enrollments, for example, start with a focus on school responsiveness and communication–aka marketing–rather than the emergence of competition. Today, more than ever, parents and students want their schools to understand and respond to their needs.

Schools should focus on how they: (1) meet the individual needs of children (2) communicate their work and (3) establish voice for all stakeholders.

A school’s brand communicates its uniqueness and reflects how the system meets the individual needs of every student. Today, the brand has a new purpose that goes beyond charting test scores or representing athletic teams on a website.

Schools need to set themselves apart by using new metrics that include a host of broader engagement measures focused on how they meet the individual needs and interests of their students and families.

Olivia Malaure takes a contemporary approach when thinking about school branding:

“Your school’s brand is its calling card to the outside world: it’s how you’re identified and remembered. When somebody sees your logo or your school colors, it immediately evokes an emotion in them, whether that’s admiration, indifference or something else depends on your reputation and how you have marketed yourself.

At the end of the day, a brand is important because it is your identifiable feature, the way that everyone recognizes your school. It helps cement relationships with parents who know of you, as they tend to trust more established brands. It helps your recruitment drive as it differentiates your school from others, and it helps to increase your school’s exposure as parents and pupils are able to assign a particular image and color scheme to your institution.”

Communicating the right brand evokes emotion and excitement, both internally and externally.

Parents seek schools that are inviting because school staff are seen as agents of exemplary customer service, not as impediments to their needs.

According to the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), school customer service improves when school employees understand the power in:

  • Following up with people. Help staff recognize the value in simply following up a few days after a contact—to make sure the individual has no other questions and feels good about an outcome.
  • Caring about people. Make sure it’s easy to find the people who can help. Is contact information posted on signs, letterhead, emails, websites, voicemail greetings, and publications clear and easy to follow?
  • Surprising people. Send occasional personal notes or article clippings to parents and others to share good news. Communications should not always focus on the negative.
  • Meeting people. Don’t let technology build walls between schools and people. Strong personal relationships, built on looking people in the eye, are the keystones upon which successful communication is built.

Inviting student and parent feedback to assess performance is mission critical for schools to be vibrant and desirable. The worst thing that can happen in schools is that students and parents don’t feel listened to. Today, students and parents want a voice–and they want to be included in school decisions.

The best educational model is one that works for all children–that cannot be negotiated. Understanding how to keep public schools vibrant and of interest for parents and students is about the decisions we make, more than about what happens in the marketplace.

How does your school or district set itself apart from the competition? Is open communication a part of your district brand? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author

Dr. Philip D. Lanoue
Dr. Philip D. Lanoue is a nationally renowned education leader. He is former superintendent of the Clarke County School District in Georgia and 2015 AASA National Superintendent of the Year. For more about Dr. Lanoue visit

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