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Thinking Differently About Public Education Communications

This month, Rick is out working on a new project exploring the lessons of Bush-Obama school reform. In his stead, we've got a terrific lineup of guest bloggers. Kicking us off this week is Mike Vannozzi, a VP at TSC2 Group, an outfit involved in Nevada school reform.

I've spent my career working in public policy, politics, and communications—especially in the local government and education arena. For the past year, I've had the opportunity to work on the implementation of a major reorganization of the Clark County School District (CCSD), one that decentralizes the district's budget and seeks to empower schools to pursue custom strategies for student achievement. (You can read more about this in my previous blog.) In implementing this reform, CCSD joins a growing list of large school districts (most notably, the Los Angeles Unified School District) pursuing decentralization and local school autonomy in the hopes of driving better student outcomes.

One of the biggest elements of this reorganization has been the formation of local school organizational teams (SOTs). These teams—composed of parents, teachers, support staff, the principal, and in some cases students and community members—work to make strategic decisions for local schools and form the local school budget. This type of reform is pretty common across the country, but it is new here in Clark County. In all, about 2200 SOT members have been engaged in the process this year, or about 6-7 per school. That's 2200 people in Clark County who, theoretically, now have a decent knowledge of the budget and achievement strategy of their local school.

Over the course of this year, I have watched as SOT members have offered countless ideas on how public education should be run at their local schools. Many of these ideas are good. Some are not so good. Usually, principals and other SOT members are able to weed out the good ideas from the bad—but on occasion, an SOT member becomes so enamored by an idea that they end up in front of the school board or on social media pleading their case. Now, I know what some of you are thinking: "Great! More people telling us what to do! More public comment at school board meetings!" But let's take a step back and think about this in a broader context.

We all know that K-12 education gets a lot of attention from the public, and with the advent of social media, the public debate around education has appeared to get more intense. We also know that many people have strongly-held beliefs about public education, and some are not shy about sharing them. At times, someone in the education space—whether empowered by an office or not—takes on an idea from the peanut gallery, and that idea gains traction. There is nothing new about this phenomenon. It's something that local governments have dealt with for ages. (If you don't believe me, just watch an episode or two of Parks and Recreation).

Most local governments hire public relations and communications professionals to work on other issues in the public interest. I've personally worked on projects where PR firms were hired to facilitate stakeholder input on complex and impactful construction projects. I've also seen regional governments hire economic development marketers to attract business, and some community development agencies hire communications firms to develop and test their public messages. In doing so, they control their message and their image, ensure that input from the public is dealt with appropriately, reduce risk, and increase their credibility with their constituents.

Somewhere along the line, however, it became untenable for local governments in the education sphere (i.e., school districts) to hire public relations help. At CCSD, for example, a few talented communications professionals handle public affairs on behalf of 351 schools, 40,000 employees, and 320,000 students. Because the only things that these people ever have time to do is respond to critics and crises, these are the only things that ever get talked about. The narrative on public education looks like a collection of one-star-Yelp-reviews. No wonder confidence in the institution of public schools continues to hover at low levels.

As education reformers, we often rightly focus on strategies that improve outcomes in the classroom, but the institution of public education encompasses more than just the classroom. It's also how society values the institution of public education, and how public education's customers—students and their parents and guardians—interact with this institution. This is especially true in a decentralized district like CCSD, where some of the customers have now been invited in to help shape local schools.

Let me throw an idea out there. What if we freed up our public education institutions to engage in public relations aimed at targeted and discreet education outcomes? Could we get those 2200 people who serve on SOTs in Clark County to engage on the right issues? Could we activate them in a community-based campaign to raise literacy rates or close the achievement gap? Could we encourage some to be teachers or support staff? We could—if we thought about our public communications as less of a tool to manage the noise and more of a tool to drive outcomes for our community.

I'm not saying that public school needs to spend lavishly on advertising and communications, but we live in the most highly mediated era in our history. Communication about public education will happen. It's time that our public-school systems join the conversation.

Mike Vannozzi

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