This commentary was originally featured in Forbes on Friday November 3, 2017.
The Austin Independent School District (AISD) in Central Texas serves a city that has consistently been one of America’s fastest growing large metropolitan areas for a decade. Yet, in spite of being in the heart of this thriving city that has grown by more than 100,000 people in the past five years, AISD has lost 5 percent of its student enrollment since 2012, shrinking by some 4,200 children.
AISD has taken steps recently to reverse declining student enrollment. One would hope the effort would focus on improving academic excellence, increasing educational options and opportunity, and stretching taxpayer dollars to make the budget leaner and more efficient.
Sadly, no. Instead, officials felt they just needed better PR.
So to stem the loss of students, AISD spent $850,000 on advertising and public relations consultants, in addition to the $1.5 million on in-house communications staff.
What did hardworking taxpayers get for it? Preliminary enrollment data for AISD’s 2017-2018 school year is in and the numbers have continued to plummet, dropping another 1,640 students, the largest loss since AISD enrollment topped out in 2012. Last school year the decline was “only” 541.
Like any good PR pro, the consultants had to spin the results, explaining that the prior year’s reduction was smaller than expected thanks to the advertising blitz. AISD trustee Julie Cowan, a supporter of the district’s PR campaign, admitted last June that the appropriation of taxpayer dollars to marketing was a “gamble,” but added the remarkable claim: “Truthfully, the only thing Austin ISD has been lacking was tooting its own horn.”
The PR contract was subsequently renewed this year bringing AISD’s commitment to horn-tooting to nearly $4 million.
But while the consultants may be patting themselves on the back for this non-victory victory, Austin taxpayers who fund these efforts should see the full picture.
First, more people, more kids. The City of Austin grew more rapidly during the 2016-2017 school year than it did the year before, so all of the smaller enrollment decline could be attributed to the larger population within the district’s boundaries.
Second, expanding the pie masks the problem. In the 2014-2015 school year, AISD began a pilot program to allow three-years-olds to attend pre-K. Since then, they have expanded the program to more schools and enrollment of three-year-olds grew from 52 to 500 in one year. For the 2016-2017 school year, nearly 1000 openings are available for three-year-olds through AISD.
Adding 1,000 children who would not have been included in enrollment numbers for the district as recently as three years ago makes the plunge appear less steep than it is. This fact was omitted in AISD’s claims of enrollment success.
Despite taxpayers’ $4 million public relations investment, the district’s own demographer projects ongoing enrollment losses—down another 4,000 students by 2025.
The wrong-headed, PR-driven approach calls into question AISD’s new big push for more than $1 billion in bonded debt in the November 7 election. District leaders now claim that new buildings will reverse enrollment declines. However, charter schools are rapidly growing in the AISD area without the benefit of lavish building funds.
Indeed, charter schools in the region offer a significant contrast to AISD’s free spending ways. Rather than gimmicks and more spending, charter schools focus on high quality teaching, innovative curricula and lean administrative overhead.
In 2007, KIPP Austin Public Schools, a network of free public college-prep charter schools, aimed to serve 5,000 students by 2020. They hit their mark last year, four years early. KIPP’s newest campus was converted from an old lighting factory. KIPP’s combined facilities and rent budget last year was about $6.5 million to serve about 5,600 students. That’s about $1,169 per student, about half of what AISD spends per student on maintenance, renovation and construction.
KIPP’s efficient management of dollars doesn’t seem to come at the expense of excellence. KIPP tracks their students nationwide from the end of middle school through college graduation. Approximately 38% of their students complete college within six years. This may sound low to some Austin parents, but the national college completion rate for students in the bottom income quartile is 9%. For disadvantaged students, for whom KIPP is designed, going to KIPP quadruples their chances of getting a degree. “KIPP Through College” is not just a catchy school slogan; it’s a statement of success.
The secret of KIPP’s success doesn’t appear to be fancy marketing or expensive new buildings but rather, academic excellence.
Now that’s a horn to toot.