This commentary was originally featured in myStatesman on May 31, 2017
Austin continues to be one of America’s fastest-growing large cities for more than a decade. As the 11th-most-populous U.S. city, it adds about 25,000 people annually to its rolls.
Paradoxically, the Austin Independent School District has not been participating in that growth; it sees a loss of enrollment year after year as parents sign up students in alternative charter schools or private schools.
To stem the loss of students and the tax funding that follows them, Austin ISD spent $850,000 of taxpayer money — not to hire more teachers, improve curriculum or to develop better educational programs, but to pay for a marketing campaign.
Two weeks ago, the district declared the public-relations push a victory.
“We do face competition — and that’s a reality,” Reyne Telles, Austin ISD’s executive director of communication and community engagement, told a TV station. “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.”
The ad campaign, which is calculated at $1 million to include staff time, was expected to increase enrollment. It didn’t. Instead, the district’s enrollment plunged by another 541 students in 2017 after dropping 1,070 in 2016.
Putting Austin ISD’s enrollment slump into perspective, the number of students districtwide dropped 0.6 percent in 2017 versus 1.3 percent in 2016. Thus, cutting the rate of decline in half was considered a win. “It did reverse a trend that we saw,” Telles told reporters.
But did it? Or, was the tax money and school district employee staff time spent on public relations wasted?
The city’s growth rate accelerated 2.9 percent in 2016, adding 25,725 people versus 21,968 the year before — a growth rate of 2.5 percent, according to the city of Austin’s population growth estimates. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 14.9 percent of Austin’s population is 5- to 17-years-old. This means that the pool of potential Austin ISD students grew by 3,273 in 2015 and by 3,833 in 2016.
What does this mean for the district’s vaunted public-relations campaign intended to reverse enrollment declines? Far from a moral victory in cutting the enrollment loss in half — or by about 529 students — the marketing effort was a failure because the number of potential students increased by 560 more in 2016-17 than the year before.
Instead of pouring taxpayer money into marketing, Austin ISD could consider a property tax cut. The district’s leadership could also accelerate the adoption of programs already pioneered by neighboring school districts that have successfully competed for student enrollment — both in private and charter schools — by increasing options and quality.
Austin ISD has already started down this path by launching three new early college high schools. Those programs allow students to earn an associate degree simultaneously 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.
Though Austin ISD has been slow to the challenge compared to adjacent school districts, it is interesting to note that research 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.
It’s said in the marketing world that nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising. Austin ISD would be well-advised to drop its public-relations program and instead redouble its efforts to improve its educational offering to students.