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Letter from Pittsburgh: School District Attempts to ‘Market’ Failure

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

A Pittsburgh Public Schools official tells the Post-Gazette that an advertising campaign over the past year is part of a community outreach program to, in part, “change the narrative” surrounding the troubled district.

But since when is it appropriate to spend more than $100,000 in an attempt to gin up the sizzle of an educational steak sold as a cut that it certainly is not?

The P-G notes that the district last year spent nearly $31,000 with a local television station for “back-to-school commercials, a radio spot and promos during newscasts.”

More than $10,000 was spent for similar commercials on stations carried by Comcast, the cable TV company.

And just this past February, the P-G says another nearly $31,000 was spent on a full-page magazine ad that billed the district as an alternative to traditional public schools.

There were other, smaller, ad buys as well.

Again, from the newspaper:

“Besides providing families with valuable information, (Superintendent Anthony) Hamlet said, the district is trying to highlight its positive attributes and change ‘the negative narrative’ that surrounds public education.”

Continued the Post-Gazette story:

“The school district, crime rate and public infrastructure are the top three factors potential residents are interested in when they consider moving to a new place or buying a home,” he said. Promoting the district can also help the city attract new corporations – like Amazon.

Given the pathetic academic performance of the school district and the city’s rapidly disintegrating water and sewer system, Mr. Hamlet is starting out in a deep hole.

Quoting Hamlet further:

“We owe it to the city that we get the information out there that, ‘Hey, we are a great program, we are doing great things and we can provide a great education for your children,’ Mr. Hamlet said.”

But what Pittsburgh Public Schools first owes the city and its taxpayers is the truth – not public relations that whistles past the graveyard of its very expensive educational failure.

As Allegheny Institute President Jake Haulk reminded (in Policy Brief Vol. 17, No. 21):

“Overall student academic performance languishes in a sorry state and the academic achievement gap (between white and black students) persists.”

At the time of that analysis – May 10, 2017 – Haulk also noted that graduation rates for Pittsburgh Public Schools’ black students had “plummeted.”

“Student achievement” remains an oxymoron in critical disciplines, he reminded.

A January 2017 report by the Council of the Great City Schools was stark in noting no progress in academic achievement since a report a decade before.

And lest one forgets Pittsburgh Public Schools’ massive absentee problem.

As Haulk said nearly a year ago, “(It’s) time stop looking for answers in jargon-filled, pretentious-sounding planning.” It is, he reminded, a district that spends $22,000 per student per school year for “pathetic” results.

Until district officials can address the district’s chronic problems honestly – administrative, academic and absenteeism -- Haulk says students and taxpayers will be shortchanged. And that’s being polite.

And no amount of slick advertising can create enough sizzle to mask the reality that the steak remains of questionable quality, if not rotting.

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