The Flint public school district has adopted Madison Avenue tactics in its drive to lure back students and school dollars from competing local public charter schools. The district has laid out about $18,000 for radio spots and billboards in this tug-of-war for school kids.

The advertising campaign, which began in the summer, featured the most outstanding students and graduates from Flint Community Schools, in an attempt to show the purported advantages of sticking with the traditional public schools.

Bill DeFrance, chief operating officer for the district, said "This [ad program] was our initial attempt to show that we are the best choice. We’re focusing on the things we do well and how the competing schools are not as well rounded as we are."

DeFrance said the school’s marketing plan includes advertising on radio, television, billboards, daily papers, and targeted weeklies, plus ads on safety vehicles, exit interviews of parents removing children from the school system, and home visits by student facilitators contacting parents.

Featured in some of the Flint school district ads were members of the Dalaneo McQueen Family. The two McQueen children were moved from a traditional public school to a charter school. But within a semester, the children were returned by their parents to the original public school. The parents maintained that their children, said to be gifted, were not academically challenged enough in the charter school where they transferred.

The K-8 charter school, deemed to be unsatisfactory by the McQueens, is Linden Charter Academy. It may indeed have been unsatisfactory to the McQueens. But the school has a waiting list of 122 students, according to Tara Powers, a spokeswoman for the National Heritage Academies, which manages charter schools across the nation. Ms. Powers said that 90 percent of the parents with children in the Linden Charter Academy have expressed satisfaction with the school.

Ms. Powers said, "Our shared vision is to build a national organization of over 200 charter schools that will become the finest K-8 schools in the country … We will achieve this by constructing rigorous ‘back-to-basics’ academics, through moral development, and a universal commitment to all children."

Since 1999, when the first Michigan charter school opened locally, Flint school officials reportedly figure they have lost 3,000 students to charter schools. Because state money follows the students wherever they are enrolled, charter school competition has cost the school district more than $21 million. Linden has 680 students.

Area charter schools reportedly have indicated they have no intention of responding to Flint Community Schools’ ad campaign.

The unusual action by the Flint Community Schools to launch an ad campaign appears to verify a claim by charter school advocates: that charter schools force traditional schools to compete for students.

Some 200 charter schools are located in Michigan, mainly in the large cities. Among the advantages of charter schools is their smaller class sizes. Probably more important is the attendance rate, which approaches 100 percent, according to Dan Quisenberry, president of he Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

Scores on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) achievement test still show that charters have not yet overtaken traditional public schools in the all-important category of educational results. But a score-to-score comparison is misleading, according to Quisenberry. He points out that many children who enter charter schools are not up to grade level to start with. When this is taken into account, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies’ analysis of scores shows an even larger victory for charter schools.

Statewide in 2003, charter schools continued a trend that has been observed for several years: the MEAP scores of their students rose at a faster rate than those of their traditional public school counterparts in all but one of 10 grade-subjects (4th-grade math, for example). And in the one exceptional case, 5th-grade social studies, charter school students tied. In six of 10 grade-subjects tested, 60 percent to 76 percent of all charter public schools increased their scores.

In short, if current trends continue, achievement levels at charters will eventually overtake those of traditional public schools. According to Brian Carpenter, director of leadership development for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, this year’s MEAP results, especially for charter schools in Detroit and Grand Rapids, "…reveal the truth: Michigan charter schools are posting a superb performance."

These results unmistakably spotlight the value of competition among schools for students as the pathway to tapping the full potential of each school child.

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Note: Tait Trussell writes a weekly column for the Pioneer Group in Big Rapids, Mich., and collaborates on occasional projects with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He is the former managing editor for Nation’s Business magazine and was vice president of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.