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In Wisconsin education circles, much attention is being paid right now to the impact of the expansion of vouchers and whether there will come a time when independent charter schools will dramatically increase in numbers.  As an educational policy watcher, I am an engaged spectator and have my own opinions about this expansion from a policy perspective, which I will keep to myself.  But I would like to share my thoughts about the move from a communications standpoint.

Over the years, my work and that of my firm have begun shifting from general communications consulting and public relations services to something that is much closer to marketing. While marketing has long been part of private schools’ efforts, it has become much more in vogue among public districts, as changes in state aid and revenue limit authority have pushed public school districts to compete against each other through open enrollment.

Even with a bump in revenue limit authority in the last budget, districts will continue to compete against each other, perhaps even more so. As I make my way around the state to meet with clients and prospective clients, I get the strong sense that something else is happening.  The budget process that resulted in the last biennial budget opened many district leaders’ eyes to the new educational landscape that we are now in, one that is becoming far more competitive than we could have ever envisioned.

Whether or not voucher schools and independent charter schools expand, we are experiencing a new generation of parents who are much more knowledgeable about the amount of choice they have for their students. Parents know they have options.

But how to do they make their choice?

When my firm does surveys and focus groups of parents who open enroll out of a district, we often learn that parents do not differentiate an education received in one district from another.  The comments go something like this: “We live in District A but work closer to District B, and since they are about the same, we chose District B.”

Think of that statement for a moment: Even though in my example the parent lives in District A, they have no knowledge of what makes it unique enough that they would chose the district over another.  In this way, it is becoming clear that one of the real dangers in education in this new competitive landscape is for your school district to look like every other school district from parents’ perspective.  In business, we would call this problem one of commoditization.

Few businesses want to compete in a commodity world, and no district should want to either.  Instead, school districts must be willing to communicate — or some would say market — what makes them different.  They must be willing to discuss and engage community members in their unique value proposition.

To do this, districts must be willing to tell their unique story.  They need to find the three to five key messages that resonate with most of their target audience in an effort to get their key audience nodding in agreement and to avoid being a commodity product.  These stories must be told again and again using multiple channels. They must be conveyed by everyone in the organization, and the message should be focused on why the district is important, why the district’s approach to education is better, and why parents should be thrilled to send their children to your schools.

In a more competitive landscape, school districts will find it necessary to become good marketers and must fight the urge to tell the same story as every other school out of concern of turning off some parents.  Avoiding commoditization not only requires a fair amount of work, it requires even more courage.

When it comes to communicating about schools, being different is often difficult.  But in this new educational landscape, it will become even more.