God help us, it’s an election year.
While the economy and Iraq are dominating headlines and most politicians’ sound bites, the state of public education is sure to rack up plenty of media coverage. Typically, if you care about public schools, this won’t be a positive experience.
Why? Because educating children is an incredibly complex task that defies simple measures, solutions, and rhetoric–the very lifeblood of political discourse and today’s news.
Now multiply that complexity by at least two or three times, if not more, if the majority of your students are poor, disabled, abused, neglected, don’t speak English, or are illiterate in their native languages.
Just look at No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Although it’s wrapped up in rhetoric that even the staunchest liberal could love, it provides very little in the way of real resources to help schools meet the escalating demands–while providing new cannon fodder for those who wish to dismantle the current public school system and move to a (God help us again) market-driven, “survival of the fittest” business model.
It has, however, created a virtual cottage industry of vendors, suppliers, and entrepreneurs who’d like to cash in by helping you meet the new mandates.
Educators are in classic Catch-22: How do you question NCLB’s efficacy or provide local context for test scores without coming across as defensive, excuse-laden protectors of an unacceptable status quo where large numbers of poor, minority, and disabled students aren’t functioning on grade level?
No wonder the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Bush administration’s education czar are at loggerheads–and the Kerry campaign is keeping a low profile on this issue.
So, to help you brave the election-year tidal wave of “What’s wrong with our public schools?” and “Why are educators too stupid to fix what’s broken?” rhetoric, here are a few eSchool-era tips:
- Publish your school board’s legislative platform and position on the issues on your web site, and provide links to credible education and research web sites that support your positions.
- Develop a pithy, concise (no-fluff), nonpartisan eNewsletter or periodic white papers regarding hot topics, trends, and public policy issues in education and how they impact your school or district. Then distribute it to the local, state, and federal elected officials that serve your community. If it’s well-received, consider expanding your eMail list to include reporters, business leaders, or other community VIPs.
- eMarketing hint: Use an opt-out rather than an opt-in feature. Both meet legal requirements, but you’ll get a better response with an opt-out function. Elected officials and other VIPs want to feel as if they’re getting something that others aren’t–the exclusivity and timeliness of the information are part of the appeal. It helps them stay “in the know.” If you want to make similar information available to the general public, design an eNewsletter specifically for that purpose and offer a free subscription option on your home page.
- Keep singing to your respective choirs–those parents, business leaders, Realtors, and other supporters–by sending them regular eMail updates regarding district news and achievements. Again, brevity is the rule.
- Avoid repetitious news items: Every issue should have fresh information. Direct readers to the archives of your web site for back issues and topics.
- Make your subject lines count. A generic “message from the superintendent” that’s sent out weekly might not get read unless he or she has very close relationships with the people on the eMail list. More specific subject lines, such as “Budget cuts impact classroom” or “Student achievement gains fuel growth,” might get more attention. (An obvious exception: Parents will probably read anything their child’s teacher or principal sends them, unless they start feeling spammed with public-relations messages.)
- Develop a 10-minute, “what’s right with our schools” stump speech and deliver it relentlessly to business and community groups. Post it on your web site for easy access by parents and reporters, and broadcast the speech on your cable television station or local public-access channel. Make sure to update it from time to time as new data become available.
- Develop catchy comebacks and practice giving seven- to 10-second answers (the length of the average sound bite) to the naysayers or to politicians’ FAQs. Keep in mind that humor works in person or on TV; it often bombs in print or on the web.
If all else fails, let’s band together and promote a new “kiss of death” legislation that forbids the simultaneous election of an education president, senator, governor, mayor, or county commission chairperson–regardless of their political persuasions.
In my experience, very few live up to such monikers, while the vast majority of such self-proclaimed gurus actually harm education more than they help it while in office.
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.