Because New Orleans parents have just received word about which schools their children were admitted into for next year, it is a good time to evaluate the information available to help make their choices. Because schools in New Orleans must compete with one another for enrollment, they market themselves to parents using similar tactics as any other product marketed to consumers. In their ads, schools often use adorable professional photos of children at desks eagerly raising their hands and buzzwords about “excellence” and “success.”
Though practical business decisions, marketing practices likely will exacerbate racial and economic disparities between and among students, schools and districts.
A Tulane honors student, Alison Reip, a co-author of this commentary, has collected data over the past six months related to public charter school marketing. What she found illuminates the problems that occur when a public good becomes a commodity much like beer or cosmetics. She shows that even though New Orleans has a large population of citizens who rely on public transportation, the main schools to advertise at bus stops were Recovery School District schools that are part of a charter network. The highest concentration of signs were in low- to middle-income neighborhoods with high percentages of African-American residents; only two signs were located in the most affluent parts of the city that have higher proportions of white residents. Further, though not all of the schools to advertise at bus stops were lower-performing schools, many were.
Reip also examined school websites and materials schools handed out at fairs. Nearly all schools have a website, although they certainly vary in the quality of the information available. Many schools list their offerings, but less than half included academic outputs such as school performance scores or graduation rates. The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital hosted a kindergarten fair in October — long before application deadlines. Only 19 percent of eligible public schools sent representatives. Five of those 11 were located Uptown. Two of the three public selective admission schools attended, and a disproportionate share of parents who attended this event were white. In February, the Urban League hosted a fair at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome that drew a much smaller proportion of white parents even though more than 80 percent of public schools participated.
This research also shows that only 12 percent of RSD schools had open houses (or rather, announced them on their website or through paid media) compared with 59 percent of Orleans Parish School Board schools and 80 percent of Board of Elementary and Secondary Education schools. Of these, the vast majority offered a single open house that almost always was on a weekday.
The marketing choices schools make are understandable from a business perspective. Why should schools place ads in neighborhoods where few students live? Why would a school highlight a mediocre performance score? And why would a school market to kids who are, statistically, less likely to do well on standardized tests? The problem is, when schools advertise only to particular kinds of students and exclude others, it leads to inequalities in enrollment. In 2009, 87 percent of white public school students attended an OPSB or BESE charter school compared with 18 percent of black students; 67 percent and 50 percent of students in OPSB and BESE schools, respectively, were in high poverty compared with nearly all students in RSD schools.
There are policy solutions to some of these issues. Charter authorizers should host their own school fairs, and schools should be required to attend. Authorizers should require schools to hold open houses at varying times/days and to advertise them widely in local media as well as to display educational outcomes and admission criteria on marketing materials.
Even with these fixes, these practices are the natural result of a largely privatized school system. The “public” mission of public schools gets lost in a system where schools see themselves at odds with one another. One of the most important roles government plays is to prevent private actors (or those behaving as such) from using public goods for purposes that are at odds with the interests of common good.
J. Celeste Lay is associate professor of political science at Tulane University. Alison Reip is an honors student and B.A. candidate at Tulane University.