Solomon Medintz: The case for public school advertising regulations

Tuesday, February 5, 2019 - 4:34pm

Since Michigan education lobbyist Betsy Devos’ appointment as secretary of the Department of Education, the sorry state of public education in Michigan has been well documented. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, Michigan students have seen the lowest proficiency growth on standardized test scores of any state in the country.

Most education reformers want to increase education spending as a way to counteract these trends. They point to the fact that Michigan ranks 29th in per-pupil spending, that adjusted for inflation, we are spending less money per student today than we did in 2011, and that $4.5 billion directed for public schools has instead gone to higher education.

While proposals to increase spending are well-intentioned, convincing the Republican-led legislature to substantially increase education funding is difficult. I have seen this myself. Last year, I went to Lansing to talk to state legislators about increasing funding for community and junior colleges in Michigan. Every Republican I spoke to dismissed our proposal as soon as I explained that it would require funding increases. They responded asking specifically what I would want to take away funding from and when I offered my suggestions, they told me that if there were extra funds, fixing the roads was their priority.

Since state legislators were not willing to increase education funding, I started thinking about how the state government can invest more in students with the money already appropriated and quickly arrived at public school advertising.

Education advertising in the United States is big business, taking many forms — online ads, newspaper ads, billboards. Michigan public school districts and public school academies that set advertising budgets play a role, with $6.25 million spent in the 2017-2018 school year. There are a number of egregious examples of individual schools spending excessive amounts. Michigan Connections Academy spent about $750,000 on advertising in the 2015-2016 school year alone, Detroit Public Schools spent $100,000 on the “Students Rise. We All Rise.” campaign and National Heritage Academies spent approximately $375,000 on one ad buy in 2014 in response the Detroit Free Press’ report on charter schools. These expenditures are harmful to students and a gross misuse of public resources. Public school advertising spending takes away money that could be invested in students. Michigan should not let public schools and public school academies advertise without regulation.

The first reason to limit school advertising is that when some schools increase their advertising budgets, other schools are incentivized to do so as well, and this makes sense. If some schools are getting their name out, other schools trying to compete for students will spend more on advertising.

Another reason to limit school advertising is that parents should be deciding where to send their students based on school results, not advertising prowess. Schools spend on advertising because it works, meaning it attracts students. But what decisions are made should be determined by school quality. When schools advertise without regulation, parents are making decisions with the wrong data. The right data exists on the Parent Dashboard for School Transparency on the Michigan School Data website.

Additionally, unregulated advertising hurts schools that invest in their students. According to a member of Education Trust Midwest, low-performing charter schools that spend more on advertising are able to attract more students than high-performing schools with low advertising budgets. Perhaps the schools that spend more on advertising are not investing in their students, which could lead to lower test scores.

School advertising does not help anyone. It encourages parents to make bad decisions, takes money away from classrooms and takes away from teacher pay. The solution is to set a yearly cap for the amount of public school district and public school academy advertising, based on the public school district with the lowest projected advertising budget. Setting a cap for public school spending on advertising would equalize the playing field, forcing schools to invest in students and compete for new students based on merit.

Instead of relentlessly advocating to a Republican legislature deaf to increases in public education appropriations, education advocates should look at how the state government can ensure that schools are investing their funds in students.

Solomon Medintz can be reached at smedintz@umich.edu.