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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Winning Minds - Not Hearts

Tuesday's edition of the New York Times featured an article that explained that the two leading candidates for the presidency are "... winning votes, but not hearts." This Blog post IS NOT about politics or my opinion on any candidate. Instead, the title of the piece attracted my attention and prompted me to think of it in educational terms. That is, how schools could also be viewed as "winning votes, but not hearts."

Here, in the state of New York, nearly all of the approximate 700 public school districts received voter approval of their annual budget on the first ballot. Some may attribute the significant success rate to recently enacted tax levy caps that have curtailed school budget growth. There may be other, specific and local factors intervening in the process, but the end result is almost unanimous approval of budgets without requiring a defeated budget to be subsequently adjusted and proposed for a second vote.

One may conclude that the budget approval of taxpayers is an indication of robust support of community members. However, if taxpayers and community members truly supported the local public school system and aligned themselves with the spirit and intent of the district, wouldn't they collectively form a mass of voters that could leverage the legislature and governor to lift the existing fiscal restraints suffocating public schools and increase the state's contribution in the form of raising state aid?

Although public schools have earned the majority of votes of taxpayers to approve annual operating expenses, I suspect a case could be made that they haven't been convincing enough to capture their hearts.

There are voters who perceive it their civic duty to support school budgets. Others may cast affirmative votes in gratitude for the people who did so when they were attending school, in some sort of pay-back. The tax levy cap may have persuaded people to vote yes, as long as the school district's budget is held in check. There are a multitude of reasons that have converged to produce exceedingly high budget approval ratings. But, if so many people believed so much in their local school district, why have they sat back and allowed the politicians to steamroll legislation that over-burdens the capacity of schools. I am not even raising the specter of the inequity in the distribution of state aid to public schools - that's another tragic story in itself. Instead, I speak of debilitating measures in accountability of teachers and schools; imposing curricula on schools prior to adequate time and money for the training of teachers necessary for successful implementation of the new curricula; expecting state tests to be administered via computers when not every school had sufficient numbers of computers for mass test administration - and some lacked the access and bandwith to meet the testing needs. I could go on, but this issue has been addressed countless times in multiple forms of media, and it is not my intent to do more than simply echo the contentions.

Instead, I want to question whether public schools are reaching and holding the hearts of those they serve as consumers (learners and their parents) and investors (taxpayers in general). Are we relying on a romanticized, tradition-based support that has passed us by in time, when public schools enjoyed a virtual monopoly on clientele? When the percentage of children attending public schools was much higher than it is now (before charter schools, and the fastest growing alternative to public schools  = home-schooling, disrupted the equation) it may have been enough to unfold the budget and await parents and relatives of the learners to come in with civic minded community members and  approve the annual budget. If this ever was true, it certainly has not been for a couple of decades, perhaps since Minnesota became the first state to allow charter schools in 1991.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics:
1. From school year 1999–2000 to 2012–13, the number of students enrolled in public charter schools increased from 0.3 million to 2.3 million
2. In 2003 there were 1,096,000 children (2.2% of total school age children) homeschooled, in 2012 there were 1,773,000 children (3.4% of the total school age children) homeschooled.

It is no longer enough to presume that by conducting informational sessions with the local PTA and convincing them of your meaning and message, you can ensure budget approval. The numbers do not support such a strategy.

I believe that a clear obstacle to persuading the public of our purpose and value has been self-inflicted. Much like the legal profession that for many years felt that advertising their services beyond the yellow pages (remember them?) and sticking a shingle out in front of the building was unprofessional and demeaning, schools have been averse to seize the initiative (available more now with social media) to promote and brand themselves in a marketplace that has become competitive and crowded. At least lawyers have adapted (albeit, using tiresome 1-800-lawyers ads on cable television) and routinely tout their services and skills. 

By the way - yesterday's Blog post made a case for marketing (advertising, branding, surveying,...) to be included as a key component in principal preparation programs.

Parents have the opportunity to exercise choice when examining educational venues. What are public schools doing to regain market share? How are they soliciting interest and convincing parents that public schools offer the most meaningful learning experience? Finally, as a means of further drawing attention to the future survivability of public schools, here's an alarming article that appeared in today's Washington Post:


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