This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on June 31, 2017.
The public school district in Austin, Texas has seen declining student enrollments for years. Austin, America’s 11th-largest city is also one of the nation’s fastest growing, adding some 25,000 residents annually. Losing students in this environment is remarkable.
Officials at the Austin Independent School District (Austin ISD) blame increasing competition from charter schools (a form of public school allowing more flexibility) and private schools for losing some 1,000 students per year out of enrollment of about 83,000.
To reverse the enrollment tide, the Austin ISD Board of Trustees decided to spend $850,000 of tax money on a marketing effort, securing the services of a PR firm as well as buying some billboard space and paying for other marketing collateral.
A few weeks ago, Reyne Telles, Austin ISD’s Executive Director of Communication and Community Engagement, declared this effort a success, noting that, while the district still lost 541 students, it wasn’t as bad as the 1,070 drop in enrollment the year before.
Telles heads a communications staff of 26 people with a payroll of $1.5 million. Including benefits and deferred compensation typical for government employment, the total annual cost to the taxpayers is likely around $2.1 million for Telles’ team.
The close to $3 million spent on marketing and communications staff could, if redirected, pay for more teachers, a better curriculum, or a range of educational programs tailored for Austin’s students. It could even allow for a modest property tax cut if left unspent.
Austin area taxpayers might want to consider if money spent on advertising and a huge communications staff this is tax money well spent. Telles says, “We do face competition — and that’s a reality. Competition from privates and charters that place a lot of funding into their advertising and getting their word out. That’s why we think it’s important for us to get the word out.” Further, he asserts that the PR effort was a success in that the rate of decline was cut by half, “It did reverse a trend that we saw,” Telles noted.
Austin ISD’s marketing success claim hinges on basic math. However, that claim ignores one very large factor: Austin’s growth rate accelerated during the time of the costly PR push.
According to the City of Austin’s own population growth estimates, the city’s growth rate quickened in 2016, adding 25,725 people, or 2.9 percent, vs. 21,968 the year before, a growth rate of 2.5 percent. This means that the pool of potential Austin ISD students grew by about 3,273 in 2015 and by 3,833 in 2016, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates of Austin’s school-aged population. This means that the number of potential students grew by 560 more during the PR campaign than it did before the PR campaign. Thus, the school district lost 1,070 students when the pool of potential students grew by 3,273, but “only” lost 541 students when the pool of student-age children grew by 3,833.
Leave it to government to declare victory from defeat even in the face of hard numbers that suggest otherwise.
Austin ISD leadership has yet to decide to continue their costly advertising effort.
Instead of pouring more money from taxpayer money into marketing, perhaps Austin ISD’s Board of Trustees could speed up the adoption of programs already pioneered by neighboring school districts who have successfully competed for student enrollment private and charter schools by increasing both options and quality.
Austin ISD has already started down this path by launching three new early college high schools. Early college high schools allow students to earn an associate degree concurrent with their high school diploma. Continuing to enhance vocational education programs would also increase the attractiveness of an Austin ISD education to thousands of potential students. Campuses concentrating on math and science, fine arts and languages could be added as well.
Though Austin ISD has been slow to the challenge compared to adjacent school districts, it is interesting to note that research by Caroline Hoxby, Ph.D., shows that as traditional government-run schools lose market share to competitors, they start to innovate when the enrollment losses hit about 6 percent. Innovation spurred by competition benefits the students in K-12 public schools by increasing their test scores. Charter schools in the greater Austin area surpassed 6 percent of market share in 2014 after rapidly quadrupling enrollment over the previous eight years.
The Round Rock school district responded to the pressure from charter schools by recruiting Steve Flores as their Superintendent. Before coming to Round Rock, Dr. Flores had successfully competed against charters in the Rio Grande Valley—a region where charters have long-flourished as an alternative to a mediocre public school education. In a December 2015 Austin American-Statesman article Flores noted, “I don’t see charters as threats. I see them as an opportunity to create the best schools possible in Round Rock ISD.”
Competition to provide goods and services improves quality. More competition generally leads to better results for consumers. Local school district efforts to innovate in the face of increased competition from charter schools proves this principle. It is no longer theory; it is a fact: students benefit from school choice.