Charter Schools: The Power of Marketing

Wednesday’s New York Times ran a front-page story on some Harlem public schools that are responding to pressure from charters by aggressively marketing themselves. Such marketing typically includes school tours for prospective parents, augmented by postcards and brochures, with most campaigns [amounting] “to less than $500, raised by parents and teachers….”

The Times story tells how prospective parents touring P.S. 125 with its principal, Rafaela Espinal, showed appreciation for the low number of students they saw in each classroom and the school’s impressive physical amenities, which include a rare swimming pool. But some parents, according to the Times, still weighed sending their child elsewhere.

In contrast to P.S. 125’s home-spun approach, nearby charter operators such as the Harlem Success Academy network routinely engage in elaborate marketing efforts more typical of private businesses, such as bright orange ads at bus stops and almost-monthly full-color mailings to prospective parents. To attract students like the ones who might otherwise attend P.S. 125, the Times reports, the Harlem Success Academy network spent $325,000 last year to attract about 3,600 applicants for its four Harlem schools: about $90 per applicant.

The huge imbalance in marketing budgets is abetted by charters’ current national buzz: Recently, they have enjoyed public relations support in the form of TV tributes from corporations such as American Express, and plaudits from public officials such as NYC schools chancellor Joel I. Klein and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. For traditional public schools, which rely for their support on parents and teachers, it is not a level playing field.

The significance of the marketing disparity has grown in a time when schools are being threatened with closure if they fail to fill their seats. An example: P.S. 241, which was saved from complete closure and replacement by a charter last year only because the teachers union filed a lawsuit. At the time, schools chancellor Klein sent a letter to the public school’s parents, urging them to “seriously consider” applying to Harlem Success, which now occupies part of the school building.

As today’s news from Kansas City, Mo, demonstrates, student flight to intensively-marketed charters is not the only threat facing traditional public schools. In Kansas City, almost half the city’s schools are being shuttered because of the city’s budget crisis. It is a scenario that could play out elsewhere during the current recession.

Traditional public schools have marketed themselves for years, actively reaching out to prospective parents ever since school choice became government policy. But today, with an uncertain economy and an equally uncertain demographic future for many cities and neighborhoods, the competitive stakes are much higher. As in Kansas City, an under-enrolled NYC public school is at great risk of being closed—and the resources that charters can bring to the marketing effort far outweigh those available to traditional public schools.

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