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Lawsuit raises concerns about school marketing

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With the evolution of public education, from innovation schools to school choice to voucher programs, new options are changing not only the relationship between schools and students but also schools and parents.

As school districts grapple with ways to attract the best and brightest students, a recent lawsuit filed by disgruntled parents against Indianapolis Public Schools may impact how school districts market academic programs offered. 

With an academically skilled son, particularly in mathematics, Michael and Mary Poore chose Shortridge High School, due to their perception of a partnership with Butler University. After a confusing chain of communication between the Poores and Shortridge, their son, Jacob, was unable to enroll in a Butler math class. That left him with an option to take an online class, which included outdated and broken links.  

Eventually, the Poores paid out of pocket for Jacob to attend an IUPUI math class. Now the parents are suing IPS for falsely advertising their relationship with Butler, not providing the college credit options required by law and reimbursement for the IUPUI class. The lawsuit displays the changing nature of education and people’s perception of it.

Cynthia Anne Baker, law professor of state and government law at Indiana University McKinney School of Law, said school marketing, one of the lawsuit’s central themes, is relatively new. Before innovations like school choice and voucher programs, there was no need for public schools to promote programs or courses. Children simply attended to the school in their district. Now that many schools must advertise, there’s little precedent to fall back on in regard to marketing.

“I just briefly looked at several textbooks on public education law and so forth, and I was not surprised, but there’s nothing in there about false advertising because this concept of recruiting students and having it be a benefit … that’s relatively new on the landscape of public education in the United States,” Baker said.

Alexandra M. Curlin, the Poores’ lawyer, strongly asserts the goal is to help one family, not enact any sweeping change to Indianapolis’ education system. However, there is a possibility of the lawsuit having ripple effects. 

“I think that there’s no question that litigation impacts the way people behave and people proceed,” Curlin said. “I would hope that this litigation helps both schools and parents understand what their obligations are to each other and put them on the same page.”

Michael Poore, on the other hand, stated his stance more strongly, noting a desire to make a point. 

“I am trying to hold schools accountable and make sure that they are representing their programs accurately … You can’t have school choice if schools are not being truthful with their families,” Poore said. “The whole school choice model fails at that point.” 

Poore also thinks advertising is a problem for the IPS community in general.

 “Our family wasn’t the only one affected by this,” he said. “There was two other families who were made similar promises. … Once they learned the problem and the fact the promises they were made were not going to materialize, they decided to transfer their kids out of IPS.” 

IPS declined to comment other than an emailed statement.

“IPS does not comment on pending litigation,” IPS stated. “We are dedicated to providing a well-rounded education for all students across the ability spectrum and will continue to empower them for success.” 

However, public court documents may reveal the district’s side of the story. In court documents, IPS counters the district is under no legal obligation to pay for college courses, there was no existing contract between the Poores and the district, and the case doesn’t fall under the Indiana Deceptive Consumer Sales Statute. 

Initially, IPS applied for a motion of summary judgment, which means there is not a large enough contradiction of facts or legal standing for a lawsuit. The motion was denied, and a bench trial will start Jan. 14, 2019.

 

Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on twitter @BenjaminLashar.

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