Under a new superintendent, the Janesville School District has abandoned a marketing campaign to increase open enrollment numbers. That’s a wise move.
The district made a mistake last year in hiring a Madison firm to try to persuade parents living outside the district to send their kids to Janesville schools. There’s nothing wrong with touting district accomplishments, but doing so with the explicit goal of luring students from other districts is a zero-sum game. If Janesville wins, other districts lose, and the region as a whole is no better off.
School administrators are, of course, happy to receive students from neighboring districts because these students each bring roughly $6,750 in state aid, but most administrators refrain from declaring their districts are coming for their neighbors’ students. Cooperation among area districts—such as between Janesville and Milton—is already lacking, and a marketing war would likely drive the sides farther apart.
A marketing war wouldn’t necessarily enrich school districts but would certainly fill the coffers of marketing firms. Last year, Janesville shelled out $10,000 to the Madison firm Go2 Guy Communications. Furthermore, districts would struggle to objectively measure whether their marketing efforts yielded results or whether other factors caused fluctuations in open enrollment numbers.
Janesville’s declining enrollment is a problem, but the way to fix it is through providing the best education possible. Word will spread among parents and educators once Janesville schools operate as premier learning institutions.
To that end, Superintendent Steve Pophal has outlined some ambitious goals, or promises as he prefers to call them. Keeping these promises would do more to sell the school district than anything a marketing campaign could accomplish.
Pophal seems aware of the folly in focusing on open enrollment, and the district’s five-year plan adopted in October makes no mention of increasing open-enrollment levels.
It’s important not to panic about Janesville’s overall enrollment decline, amounting to less than 1 percent this year. Enrollment has steadily slipped since 2014, but the situation is far from bleak. District officials expect a recent rebound in birthrates will soon translate into a larger enrollment in elementary grades.
Perhaps a better way to gauge whether the district is succeeding is to examine the percentage of students within the Janesville School District who opt for private education, either at home or through a school.
Forget about trying to attract students from outside the district. What about the hundreds of students within the Janesville School District who don’t attend public schools?
If a growing number of parents choose private over public education, that would be a sign the district is failing. But if the Janesville School District can win over these parents and enroll their kids in public schools, that would be proof the district is delivering results.