Saturday, August 29, 2015

Should Public Schools Advertise?

Should public schools be spending our tax money on advertising and marketing? At the 8/17 board meeting, our Communications Director accounced the launch of a new phase of the "Proud to Be HSD" campaign, which is to include billboard and bus bench advertisements. Based on the discussion at the meeting, many seem to consider this a great idea and a standard, expected expenditure. I'm not so sure though.

The main rationale seems to be the oft-repeated statement that "We should run the public schools like I business". I've said this numerous times, so perhaps it's appropriate that my own words are being thrown back at me! But using this statement to justify public school marketing is a clever bit of sophistry, rather than a serious argument. The "like a business" statement is a shorthand for numerous positive attributes of private businesses that we would like to see in schools: accountability for results, constant drives to control spending, measuring and improving return on investment, etc. It does not mean that 100% of things a private business does must also be done by schools. Since public schools have a captive audience of automatic customers, who have to go through significant time and/or expense if they desire to choose alternative options or opt out, the schools simply do not have the same need to advertise as private businesses do. We do have a need for some communications budget, to inform students and parents of necessary school-related information, but I don't think HSD needs the same kind of marketing department as Intel or Nike.

The other rationale that seemed to have some sympathy was "Charter schools advertise, so it's only fair if our regular schools do it too." But charter schools are specifically designed so that they do NOT have the automatic customer base of standard public schools, and need to attract students to actively apply-- so in their case, advertising makes a lot more sense. In addition, charters are an experiment in (mostly) independent management: intentionally divorced from the direct control of school boards, they make their own decisions on local expenditures. Whether they spend their money wisely or foolishly is an internal matter: they are purely accountable for results. Charters are directly punished, and can even fail and shut down, if they fail to deliver solid performance and continually attract students.

Ultimately, as I mentioned in my post on the OSBA last year, my biggest concern here is the use of tax money to lobby for more tax money. It's no secret that a key goal of the "Proud to Be HSD" campaign is to lay the groundwork for future bonds and levies to pass. But the money that has currently been entrusted to HSD by the hard-working taxpayers of Hillsboro was specifically intended to advance our children's education, not to persuade the public to give more tax money. Once we allow our money to be diverted for this purpose, where does it stop? It's the natural inclination of government bureaucracies to launch this endless snowball, using existing funding to generate more funding, and we need to work hard to keep this tendency under control.

There is nothing stopping a local volunteer group, possibly with aid from the (independent) Hillsboro Schools Foundation or other charities, from putting on an advertising campaign in favor of public education. A pro-HSD campaign organized through this mechanism is likely to get wide approval and public support. However, if I see my tax money being spent on billboards and advertisements instead of reaching the classroom, it will make me less, not more, inclined to vote in favor of future bonds and levies-- regardless of the actual quality or content of the ads. And I believe a large proportion of our local population is likely to feel the same way.  

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