Veronica Gonzalez teaches a Spanish-immersion kindergarten class at Sherman Elementary. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Let’s face it. Good customer service is something that public schools could do a whole lot better.

And now in the onslaught that is 2020, public schools like mine have found themselves in the awkward position of worrying about declining enrollment like never before. A decade after kind-hearted billionaires like Charles and David Koch, Betsy Devos and John Walton have carved out niches for school choice, I have seen schools open and close in my neighborhood. And I have seen case after case where students and families come back to our public school wondering how their child could be that far behind. And it makes me wonder: Why’d they leave in the first place?

As a teacher in a Title 1 school here in southeastern San Diego, I’d like to suggest that declining enrollment isn’t anything new, and in many ways it’s just a nicer way of saying “losing to the competition.”  And now the losing is becoming more evident as the pandemic continues, as is the core reason behind it: our public school customer service problem.

Despite delivering better instruction to children on the whole, despite offering new and improved facilities that charter schools often do not, despite magnet programs and higher-quality training and teacher development, public schools can’t seem to deliver the message to their customers that many parents want to hear.

Why? Because we aren’t treating them like customers anymore.

But someone is. This week a postcard arrived from a charter school only a block away, and what was on it helped me to understand what my own school isn’t hearing.

Image via Thomas Courtney

What looked at first like reasons to attend a charter school, to me felt like reasons why we are losing kids at my public school. Let’s walk through the claims.

We’re a Redwood Village neighborhood school!

This matters because it declares to parents from Redwood Village that they won’t be treated as inferior to people who live in a “better” neighborhood. Parents have pride in their neighborhoods even if the teachers there do not live, shop or educate their own children in the neighborhood in which they work.

One-to-one computers for all students!

My school district was sent home to shelter in place on March 13. Despite this, my district, like others around the nation, did not make those computers available to students until over a month later.  If my public school had been a company, we’d be out of business.

Before- and after-school care programs

I filled out childcare forms at the same time I enrolled my daughter at a charter school, knowing where she would be from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. if necessary.  Parents at public schools often need to navigate school and childcare enrollment separately, hoping it “all works out.” If it’s one thing parents need right now, it’s assurance they know where their child is.

A safe and caring learning environment!

Two words: safety and happiness. Parents care about safety, and they feel that bullying has become an epidemic in our schools. Parents want their children to be excited and inspired, not bullied or devalued. Public schools have lost parent trust on this issue despite their continued lip service, and charter schools know it.

Art, music and physical education for all students

When San Diego Unified’s award-winning music program is perpetually on the cutting block, made worse by expected budget cuts, when a lack of PE in schools is leading to an epidemic of its own, it’s perfectly clear why this is such a selling point, isn’t it?

Harvesting and planting education through the school garden!

This says we value the types of activities that children love, and that make them whole. This says students aren’t going to be little robots at desks all day practicing what’s on a test. And parents like that. In fact, parents are over the idea that children will be taught to the test all day. Even though affluent administrators have been comfortable with narrowing curriculum in inner city schools where they would never educate their own children, parents there never have been comfortable with it. And charter schools know this. And so does every parent shopping for their school, rich or poor.

The same Sam Walton who founded Walmart and who also championed charter schools once said, “There is only one boss, the customer, and he can fire everybody in the company.”

Real customer service begins with listening to what the customer wants and then giving the customer what they ask for. Parents have declared unequivocally that they want more than higher test scores and yet all funds to public schools are tied to test scores like laces on shoes. Charter schools have created a customer service that addresses that disenfranchisement and packaged it so well that it can fit neatly on a postcard.

I’m proud to teach at a school where we’ve taken the concerns and views of our parents seriously and better yet, taken action. I know, because I am also one of those parents now. But we have more work to do. Until we fix our public school customer service problem, parents will continue to fire our schools, no matter how well we teach, build new facilities, structure magnet programs or tout our test scores.

It would be a shame to lose such important business because we stopped listening to what the customer wanted.

Thomas Courtney teaches fifth grade at Chollas-Mead Elementary, where his public school’s customer service convinced him to bring his daughter Onora, who is thriving academically and socially.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.