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National School Choice Week: Public schools gear up for the competition

It’s National School Choice Week.

This year’s event comes as public schools face stiff and steady competition from alternatives—including homeschools, private academies, online programs, and charters.

Between 2011 and 2016, U.S. charter school enrollment grew by more than 60 percent. The choice movement has benefitted from a doubling down of support at the federal level.

As the Washington Examiner reports, in a proclamation released Monday, President Trump signaled his support for national school choice week:

“My administration is refocusing education policy on students. We are committed to empowering those most affected by school choice decisions and best suited to direct taxpayer resources, including states, local school boards, and families.”

The president went on to promise “a future of unprecedented educational attainment and freedom of choice.”

Amid increased advocacy, choice-friendly state and federal policies, and dwindling enrollments in several major districts, public school leaders are feeling the heat.

Indeed, the emergence of a new market-based K-12 landscape represents a huge shift for public school lifers.

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As 2015 AASA National Superintendent of the Year Dr. Philip Lanoue recently wrote on TrustED:

“Given my lack of experience in the competitive marketplace, I may have distorted my own thinking on the influence of competition in K-12 education. My own conversations on the emerging marketplace philosophy tend to focus on changes that happen outside of the system. In reality, the most effective strategy for thriving in this new environment might be to take a deeper look at what’s happening within our schools.”

When school leaders examine their districts in the context of this new normal, they’ll likely discover a lot to be excited about; they’ll also see a lot that needs to change.

The good news: Public school districts already provide choices to students and parents.

That’s according to a report released last fall by the Center for Public Education (CPE). According to the report, public school districts increasingly offer multiple school building options to students, do a better job than private schools of offering unique education options like AP and honors courses, and offer more extracurricular options than private schools.

But academics and activities alone are not enough. Increasingly, parents and families say they want to be heard.

A recent study out of Rice University draws a bright line between parent satisfaction and parent engagement. The same study found that public schools often trail private and charter schools in this critical area. In fact, just 34 percent of public school parents surveyed said they were “very satisfied” with their school’s parent engagement activities.

If you had an alarm for your school communications and outreach teams, this is where it would sound.

As school PR guru Julie Thannum explains:

“Expectations for consistent school-to-home communications have changed, and taxpayers in our communities demand more two-way, systemic conversations with their public schools. No longer do educators have the luxury of making decisions without involving, educating, and engaging their audiences.”

As school choice advocates celebrate National School Choice Week, public school leaders should think about the choices they provide—and consider what they can do to set themselves apart from the competition.

What steps is your school or district taking to stay competitive? Do you have a plan to take community engagement to the next level? Tell us in the comments.