Georgia's Future. Now? 

Why rebranding the state's public schools system sends the wrong message

Last week, Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge launched a new statewide branding campaign for public schools. It's called "Georgia's Future. Now!" and its sole purpose is to cast a positive light on some programs that haven't garnered much attention in the past.

Some of these initiatives — such as Common Core Georgia Performance Standards, Career Pathways, and Teacher and Leader Keys — date as far back as 2010. No new programs were announced, but plenty of fresh catchphrases were introduced, referring to "forward-thinking educators" that are "moving the ball forward" in order to "create a buzz in our schools." You get the idea, right?

Well, I don't. Why do we need a campaign to try and convince us that everything is going according to plan? The public school system's performance should sell itself, not the other way around.

Some people have called the announcement's timing into question. Exactly one week after the charter school amendment passed, which he vocally opposed, Barge unveiled the campaign at Buford's Twin Rivers Middle School. He told CL that the timing was pure coincidence, and thought that making a post-election announcement would ensure the promotion's visibility.

But Barge's timing for a morale-boosting effort seems just a tad too convenient, considering that his reputation as a public official is at a low point. In addition to the charter school amendment's passing, massive cheating scandals, namely those involving Atlanta Public Schools, have taken place under his watch. More recently, he and Gov. Deal have contentiously fought over a key hire who would be responsible for the state's Race to the Top federal grant program.

According to Department of Education spokeswoman Dorie Nolt, the campaign will last through 2014 — as long as Barge remains in office. The Department of Education has invested $60,000 into the branding effort, including $25,000 from Race to the Top's federal funding and $35,000 in state funds. As of now, the department has spent roughly three-quarters of that on tried-and-true marketing materials such as "printed literature" and "knickknacks with a logo" as well as a communications plan.

In pursuing this rebranding, Barge has adopted a corporate-minded strategy that mirrors the approach of some charter schools. The majority of the money spent on this branding campaign so far has gone to Voss & Associates, an education marketing and public relations firm based in Florida. Ironically, Barge, along with many other amendment opponents, cited outsourcing as a major problem of the charter school system.

The initial $60,000 budget doesn't include costs for the "Modern Teacher," a web series that the Georgia Foundation for Public Education has privately funded. The online comedic promotion, expected to launch in January, aims to re-create the lukewarm-yet-immensely popular ABC sitcom "Modern Family." But, you know, about public school culture. Barge says the series pokes fun at the business of education, but also includes serious roundtable discussions.

"Things have been tough around public education lately, so perhaps a little humor will relieve the tension," he said in a press release announcing the campaign. "It will hopefully open the door to dialogue ... [and] touch your heart and mind while making a point."

It sounds more like a bait and switch, teasing with a bit of half-hearted humor before dragging teachers, community members, and others into long-winded discussions that seem more determined to raise awareness of past measures than seeking ways to create future improvements.

There wouldn't be as much "tension" to dispel if Georgia's public school performance was up to par in the first place. Granted, Barge inherited the fallout from many of the larger failures and scandals. He obviously wants to improve the state's public schools, whose graduation rates rank 47th in the nation, and some of his initiatives do signify a step in the right direction.

Through the old programs now being promoted, he's worked toward making the state's curricula more rigorous, helping teachers become more effective in the classroom, and allowing students to receive a more relevant education. He hopes, as a result of these improvements, that public schools will be able to produce more "college and career ready students."

These are goals Barge should be pursuing as superintendent, no doubt, but the branding is ultimately misguided. And while the campaign isn't breaking the Department of Education's bank, it's a symbolic waste of resources. The department exists to create effective schools and ensure that students receive a quality education. The act of branding, however, admits a fault in achieving these educational goals.

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