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Public Embarrassment

When did school administrators become the new pep club?

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Leaders in American society have decided marketing is everything. Remember a few years ago, when Bush administration officials didn't want to invade Iraq right away because (and I'm paraphrasing) in the automobile business you don't roll out a new product in August?

Or remember the bright idea former University of Pittsburgh athletic director Steve Pederson had? He wanted everyone to stop referring to the university, and its sports teams, as "Pitt." Pederson's Orwellian marketing strategy was mercilessly ridiculed, as it should have been. Now, 10 years later, Pitt is spending $75,000 to replace "Pittsburgh" logos at the Petersen Events Center with logos that say ... "Pitt."

I understand marketing matters. But could we just restrict it to commercial enterprises?

And that brings us to the Pittsburgh public schools system. You know, the taxpayer-financed system of educational institutions designed to enlighten the city's young folk?

As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports, "The Pittsburgh Public Schools will drop 'public' from its name and adopt a new, standardized way of referring to its schools as part of a campaign to brighten and strengthen the district's image. For example, Schenley High School will be called Pittsburgh Schenley."

"Brighten and strengthen"? What the hell does that mean?

Public schools here and everywhere have taken it on the chin in recent years. Critics, mostly conservatives, have maligned the quality of education and everything else about our schools. They despise the teachers unions and blame them for the alleged downfall of our education system.

Sometimes public schools deserve their bad rap. Sometimes they don't. There are excellent teachers and schools in the Pittsburgh school system. There are also the opposite. But one thing that won't make a damn bit of difference either way is marketing. You can't market your way into quality education. You have to hire good teachers, try to impose some discipline on today's crop of spoiled, sometimes weapon-toting dudes and dudettes, and attract quality people to run the schools. And that's not easy.

But it is freaking ridiculous to take the "public" out of public schools. I'm very disappointed in Superintendent Mark Roosevelt. Why is he, or any member of his staff, sitting around pondering marketing strategies?

Even parents who were educated in the allegedly inferior public schools are not stupid enough to believe the quality has improved just because the word "public" disappears from the stationery and bureaucrat references to the schools. Worse yet, the idea came from a marketing consultant, Meade Johnson. Why have the taxpayers hired a marketing consultant? To whom are we marketing? If you can't afford to send your kids to a private school, you send them to the public school. Either that or you have an affinity for the public schools because your experience wasn't horrible. But no one sits around the house going, "Well, I was going to send little Janie to the private school, but they've really updated their image by removing the word 'public' at the public schools, so I've changed my mind."

The institutions formerly known as public also have their own slogan: "Excellence for all." Yes, even if I have overwhelming evidence that a particular teacher or curriculum sucks, I will be convinced otherwise by a clever slogan. Thank God they didn't pick "mediocrity for all," or I might have to think twice. I am hypnotized by these clever bureaucrats.

The P-G reports that "under the new policy, Sterrett Classical Academy will be called Pittsburgh Sterrett. But the school's traditional name still will be used -- albeit in smaller print -- on stationery and other printed materials."

Well let's make sure we spend boatloads of cash updating the freaking stationery. Thank God the district's logo -- a grid consisting of circles, triangles and squares -- will still be used. How much money did we throw away developing a logo?

School-board member Randall Taylor said the district might be able to avoid negative attitudes about public schools with this change. What are these people smokin'? Send me a case.

Negative attitudes don't stem from a lack of marketing strategy. They stem from problems with the schools. Fix the schools, not the marketing. Don't waste our time and money obsessing on slogans and logos. Fix the schools.

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