More public schools are marketing themselves, potentially opening them up to new legal risks


 Dec. 2, 2018 

Radio spots. Billboards. Ads on the sides of public buses.

Sycamore School ad

These are just a few of the places that the marketing efforts of schools — public and private — are starting to crop up as competition for students and the money that follows them heats up.

Some in education see the new phenomenon as a natural evolution — as many states begin to treat public education like private business — but a lawsuit involving Indianapolis Public Schools has others wondering if the practice is opening schools up to new risks.

An Indianapolis family is accusing IPS of misleading them in the marketing of Shortridge High School and opportunities available to its students. Michael Poore said his family may have chosen a different high school for his son, had they known the college course they expected to have tuition-free access to through Shortridge’s partnership with Butler University would never materialize.

Instead of a free calculus class at Butler, Michael Poore said he ended up paying out of pocket for his son, known in court document as J.P., to take calculus at IUPUI. Now he’s suing the school district for damages, including the cost of the course and reimbursement of their attorney’s fees, which Poore said have greatly exceeded the cost of the class itself.

“I’ve spent a lot more money on lawyers than I’m ever going to recover on this lawsuit,” Poore said. “But I don’t think public schools should be allowed to lie to people about the programs they offer.”

In court documents, IPS has denied the allegations, saying it did not promise free access to college courses at Butler.

Marketing public schools is on the rise

The case won’t be decided for months. All the while, experts say marketing in public K-12 education is on the rise.

“There’s a lot more folks interested in it,” said Rich Bagin, executive director of the National School Public Relations Association.

Bagin said that membership in his organization has been growing by 10 to 15 percent every year for the last few years as the marketing of schools has increased. It now has more than 2,000 members — about half of whom gathered at a national conference over the summer to trade tips and tricks for the best ways to share the good work happening inside their schools and districts.

During the conference, NSPRA launched its new book: “Marking/Marketing Your School the School of Choice.”

“Without effective marketing and communication strategies, even the best schools will get lost in the race to win public support,” says the blurb on the NSPRA website, where the book is available for $42.

Schools are racing to win public support and, often, public money.

Starting in 2001, Indiana began rerouting money for public schools to remake itself as a champion of school choice. Lawmakers created a public charter school system and then started what would become the largest voucher program in the nation.

The idea was to give children in failing schools a way out, through privately-managed public charter schools or the voucher program that funnels public education money to private, often religious, schools in the form of scholarships for students from low- and middle-income families.

School choice growing in Indiana

What started out small — just 11 charter schools in 2002 — became huge.

Now, 80 charter schools enroll some 40,000 students and receive more than $300 million in taxpayer dollars per year that previously went to traditional public schools. And nearly 35,000 students received $150 million in vouchers, making the program larger than the state’s largest school system and rivaling enrollment in charter schools.

The state remade the funding formula, too. Now, state funding follows students. If a student assigned to a public school chooses to attend elsewhere — be it another public school, a charter school or a voucher-accepting private school — their share of state dollars follows them out the door.

Bagin calls this the “competition factor” and it explains, he said, why interest in school marketing techniques continues to grow.

“There’s some that do advertising at movie theaters, like a trailer, talking about their local schools,” he said. “Others are doing billboards.”

Direct mailers and social media campaigns are also increasingly commonplace.

As the state starts treating schools more like businesses, some advocates of school choice and a more “free market” approach to education say it shouldn’t be a surprise that schools are engaging in more business-like practices.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, said Betsy Wiley, president and CEO of the Institute for Quality Education. IQE is an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that advocates for school choice and has supported education reform efforts.

When they’re done right, marketing initiatives push schools to think more about the programs they offer and the needs of the families that they serve. It can also help parents and families make more informed decisions when choosing a school for their children.

“It is big business,” Wiley said. “Our school system and all that it entails is a service industry, providing education. And it’s more than 50 percent of the state budget.

“I think seeing our schools operate a little more businesslike in a wide variety of areas – promoting the strength of their school through marketing being one – is a good thing and a natural thing.”

Marketing as a way to inform … with some potential risks

It’s not just happening in Indiana, either. Michael McShane is the director of national research for EdChoice, another nonprofit that promotes school choice, and he is seeing similar activity across the country.

“In a lot of these choice-rich cities, the composition of choices available is different … but the fundamental idea that you have schools that are trying to get students to go there is happening all over the place,” he said.

And, in general, McShane said that is a good thing.

“We don’t want people to (be) choosing schools in the dark,” McShane said. “We want them to be as informed as they can about what (schools) are offering and the results they’re getting.”

That may be the goal, but it isn’t always the end result. Regardless of the outcome in the IPS case, the Poore family says it felt misled and made a choice they came to regret.

Their case could set new precedent for public schools in Indiana, said James Nehf, law professor at the IU McKinney School of Law.

An expert on consumer law, Nehf said he’s not aware of any other instances in which a public school has been sued under the state’s consumer sales statute.

Marketing and advertising activity is regulated in several different ways. The Federal Trade Commission oversees some aspects and each state has its own deceptive consumer practice act that supplements federal law. Indiana’s statute is defined pretty broadly, Nehf said.

“The statute covers what is calls suppliers, defined as any person who regularly engages in or solicits consumer transactions,” Nehf said. “Arguably a school is engaged in the disposition of educational services.”

IPS, however, has argued in court documents that the relationship between students and their school is not a contract, nor does it equate with a provider-consumer relationship.

School officials declined to respond directly to IndyStar’s questions about the lawsuit, saying the school district does not comment on pending litigation.

While the lawsuit against IPS may be the first of its kind in Indiana, Christopher Lubienski said school marketing is increasingly becoming an issue. He is a professor of education policy at Indiana University and has studied the issue of school marketing globally.

He said he’s seen instances where parents would misunderstand school data and schools would play into that.

“The underlying design of a lot of these reforms is getting schools to act as businesses, getting them to see families as customers,” he said. “The fact that they’re doing what businesses do with marketing should not be surprising.

“Some would say that’s a good thing. But there’s also potential for manipulation.”

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