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PR Campaign for Better Schooling Keeps Low Profile Since Its Debut

January 30, 2007 4 min read
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Launched last April with considerable fanfare, a public-awareness campaign spearheaded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged to drum up broad-based support for tackling what organizers called “America’s education crisis.”

The announcement was timed to coincide with two back-to-back days of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” that focused on high schools, and the so-called Stand Up campaign got a nice plug on the program. (“Campaign Seeks Buy-In for High School Reforms,” April 19, 2006.)

But since the initial splash, the campaign has been awfully quiet.

Other than providing an interactive Web site, the only recent publicity appears to be ads the campaign placed in Iowa and New Hampshire newspapers one day after the November elections.

When the organizers launched Stand Up, they promised to engage parents, educators, policymakers, and others in all 50 states to build momentum to demand change that would produce great high schools. The campaign was to include billboard promotions, paid advertisements in newspapers, TV public-service announcements, and a movie “trailer,” as well as a series of public events around the country.

Stand Up was billed as a multiyear effort, and had some 50 education-related organizations listed as coalition members, including Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week. Most of the coalition partners, including EPE, have received grants from the Seattle-based Gates Foundation.

Shortly after the announcement, the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation signed on as a co-funder.

The Gates Foundation so far has committed $2.35 million to the Stand Up campaign, said Marie Groark, a spokeswoman for the philanthropy.

Officials from several groups in the Stand Up coalition said they haven’t heard much from the campaign since the launch. “I don’t know anything that has happened with it,” said the leader of one partner organization, who asked not to be named. “We had some T-shirts and stuff [to hand out]. … I just saw it as a short-lived PR campaign.”

Timing and Message

Although the campaign was initially described as emphasizing the need to improve the nation’s high schools, it appears to have become broader in scope. The Stand Up Web site now says the “nonpartisan, national campaign” seeks to “raise awareness about the education crisis and to transform education in America.”

Asked why the campaign has been so quiet, Ms. Groark said, “Just getting the timing and the messaging right [takes time].”

She said the Gates money currently is going toward the Web site, strategy, research, and “creative development.”

“We believe that building political and public will for change is critical if our nation, our schools, our students are going to be able to rise to the challenge,” she said in an interview last week, “and so we launched Stand Up with that in mind, and continue to support Stand Up.”

There have been rumblings that a new phase of Stand Up is in the works. In its “Washington Whispers” column in November, U.S. News & World Report magazine first reported that the Gates and Broad foundations were planning a public-awareness push tied to the 2008 presidential campaign.

More recently, education writer Alexander Russo said in his This Week in Education blog that former Colorado governor and Los Angeles schools chief Roy Romer was expected to play a leadership role in such an effort.

Reached by phone last week, Mr. Romer, a Democrat, confirmed that he’s in talks about the idea, but declined to provide details. “I’m in conversations with the Gates and Broad foundations about doing some work with them on a national campaign,” said Mr. Romer, who stepped down last fall as the superintendent of the 727,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. “I’m not in a position to discuss this yet.”

The Gates and Broad foundations declined to discuss plans for Stand Up. But Karen Denne, a Broad Foundation spokeswoman, said details on some new activities were expected soon.

Ads Urge Action

The ad that ran in Iowa’s Des Moines Register newspaper and the New Hampshire Union Leader of Manchester, N.H., on Nov. 8 may give clues about what the foundations have in mind.

“Congratulations on your election win,” it begins. “Now we need you to ensure that America wins. When it comes to education, the United States ranks 19th in the world. Forty years ago, we were No. 1.”

Although the ad’s wording suggests it was addressed to the victors of the November political campaigns, the text did not specify particular contests or candidates. Still, the choice of Iowa and New Hampshire suggests an eye toward next year’s presidential campaign. Traditionally, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary are the first places voters weigh in on the candidates.

The ad highlights the high-school-dropout problem, and offers a few ideas to address it. The ad identifies Stand Up as its sponsor, and points to the www.standup.org Web site for further information.

It calls for ensuring all children in every state “learn and acquire the same knowledge and skills”; promotes “providing extra student support and more time spent learning”; and calls for “offering great pay for great teachers.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as PR Campaign for Better Schooling Keeps Low Profile Since Its Debut

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