Austin Board Hires Marketing Firm to Fend Off Charter Competition

As public school districts lose students to charter schools, one Texas district is trying to fight back—with the help of marketing.

Earlier this month, the Austin, Texas, school board decided to hire marketing firm Sanders/Wingo Advertising, Inc., with the goal of increasing student enrollment, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

The decision comes after the district’s traditional public school enrollment dropped by about 3,000 students over the last three years. Meanwhile, charter school enrollment in the area has quadrupled since 2007, increasing to more than 14,000 students attending the independent public schools.

The $350,000, one-year contract with Sanders/Wingo Advertising, Inc.—of which $52,000 will be paid to the firm, with the rest spent to make advertising and media buys—is just one of a number of the district’s efforts to boost enrollment and improve the perception of its public schools.

The school board also plans to advertise on billboards and buses, expand pre-kindergarten to 3-year-olds, and conduct surveys to determine what motivates parents’ educational choices for their children. The 83,688-student district hopes to draw students away from charter and private schools, and to attract students from other districts in order to reverse declines in enrollment.

The school board’s plan comes as the board seeks to combat what it sees as broad outreach by charters attempting to lure students away from the Austin school system.

“Some of the privately-owned charter schools are very specifically, very aggressively targeting our families and students,” said Austin Independent School District board member Paul Saldaña in the Austin American-Statesman story.

“They’re taking our kids from right under our feet,” he added. Saldaña said the district must keep up with the charter schools’ “slick marketing campaigns.”

Student enrollment in the district’s public schools may also be dropping due to demographic and economic trends, the newspaper reported. Some district officials cited low birth rates, for instance, and a high cost of living in the state’s capital city as forcing middle-class families to move to suburban areas.

Still, some residents criticized the board’s use of taxpayer money on marketing, arguing that advertisements wouldn’t solve the core problem.

“The reason, if you are willing to ask, is because people are dissatisfied with the curriculum in our schools,” Kate Evertson, an Austin resident, told the board prior to the vote.

“We have great teachers, we have interested administrators,” she added. “We have phenomenal kids … but what we don’t have is a good curriculum. You owe it to your constituents to look at the real reasons people are leaving and we have decreasing enrollment.”

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