No Child Left Behind? To most school leaders, No Budget Left Unscathed would be a more accurate depiction of the impact unfunded federal mandates, revenue caps, and massive state budget shortfalls are having on school finances.

Then, just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. According to the San Jose Mercury News, parents in some California districts have started fundraising to pay music teacher and school librarian salaries. And these are public schools.

I don’t envy superintendents and school board members the impossible choices they now face. There’s no doubt the classroom is public education’s front line.

If you want to keep your foot soldiers fed, however, you need to continue investing in school public relations–including such 21st-century strategies as web site development and eMail database cultivation. Here are five reasons why:

1. Public schools’ survival depends on public trust and support, both of which evaporate quickly when relationships aren’t attended to and information isn’t forthcoming.

Clearly, the war on terror is going to be won in the classroom, not on the battlefield. If you have no hope–and if the only formal schooling you have received has been an indoctrination in hatred–then murder and suicide can be twisted into viable options.

Education–particularly public education that is free and open to all–is the cornerstone of any democratic society. And make no mistake about it, public education as we know it is under siege in this country.

2. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will, and you probably won’t like it much.

In fact, you might not even recognize your own schools, students, and colleagues once the news media, politicians, voucher advocates, anti-tax zealots, business leaders, and other well-meaning folk are through mangling the issues with half truths, innuendos, hyperbole, and outright fabrications.

We know our bad news–employee arrests, student protests, bomb threats, teacher walkouts, and test score fiascos–is going to get extensive coverage. In today’s 24-hour, seven-days-a-week media microscope, that’s a given.

But who’s going to let your community know about the teacher who adopted a homeless student, the custodian who greets each kindergartner with a smile, or the principal who tutors struggling teenagers on Saturdays?

Who’s going to help elected officials and the public understand that today’s public schools are educating more students at higher levels than ever before in our nation’s history?

Why is “the nation’s failing public schools” an accepted mantra in the press, when academic success is the norm–and not the exception–in “government-sponsored” classrooms across the country?

3. Do the math. The return on investment for strategically planned and well-executed marketing plans can be striking.

For example, a school system would basically recoup the cost of a $50,000 public relations and advertising campaign–modest by most business standards–as soon as eight new students enrolled, based on an average per-pupil expenditure of only $6,000 per year.

Assuming these new customers remain satisfied–and enrolled–for another five years, the district’s new funding would increase by $240,000, yielding a return on investment of $190,000.

4. For the “what’s in it for me crowd” in your community–a growing faction, I’m sad to say–a quick look at property values or the future of Social Security should suffice.

Ask any realtor what drives property values, and they’ll likely say, “location, location, location.” The primary factor in the perceived quality of any given location, however (unless, of course, you live by a toxic waste dump or under the flight path of a major airport), is the quality of the public schools.

Moreover, according to Ron Crouch, director of the Kentucky State Data Center, the sheer numbers of aging baby boomers might overwhelm the young taxpayers funding their retirement. Crouch recently presented his findings on newly released census data at a leadership conference sponsored by the Kentucky School Boards Association.

“Across the United States, the older baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1955) have a higher educational level at comparable ages than younger boomers (born between 1955 and 1964),” says Crouch, noting that the percentages for persons ages 35 to 44 with undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees declined from 1990 to 2000.

“We’re already facing a brain drain in California, New York, and throughout the Southwest,” says Crouch. “A challenge for the Southwest will be investing in the education of their rapidly growing Hispanic and other immigrant populations. Will they respond to the challenge or ignore it? Will their key cities be islands of prosperity in a sea of educational and economic decline?”

And, since the majority of those boomers will be white–and the majority of young taxpayers will be poor people of color who might or might not have received the government services and education they needed growing up–just how willing are these taxpayers going to be to take care of all these senior citizens?

5. A town is known by the schools it keeps.

This venerable slogan is still on target, whether you’re talking about a neighborhood, rural community, small town, big city, or the far-flung suburbs.

Public schools are the only game in town that takes all comers. Now, as the end of court-ordered desegregation concentrates more poor, minority, immigrant, and disabled students in inner-city schools, I wonder where the next generation is going to learn how to work and communicate with all kinds of people.

I’m a firm believer in public school choice. Grouping kids by geography or housing prices doesn’t make much sense to me, and I think parents–all parents–need high-quality options to choose from.

As the parent of a child with significant disabilities, however, I am keenly aware that even with a state-sponsored voucher in hand, my daughter isn’t going to be welcomed at any of the private, parochial, or charter schools that keep trying to recruit my so-called “gifted” child.

I’m also not naive as to why my affluent zip code has been targeted by these schools for direct-mail brochures, post cards, open house invitations, and even a video.

The Americans with Disabilities Act–the landmark civil rights legislation for people with disabilities–might have been passed 10 years ago, but people with mental retardation still need not apply. Nor should children whose parents can’t afford tuition or who can’t volunteer at school because they’re working three jobs just to put food on the table.

Public schools serve a public good. We forget that at our peril. And if we don’t keep the vital link between public schools and our free and democratic society on the public’s agenda, who will?

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.