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Friday, September 21, 2007

Public schools, religious spam

Amazingly, evenliberalMadison with all those radical perfessers rampaging along the bike paths isn't free of church-state separation problems. It turns out that the Madison school district has a policy that lets various groups send flyers home with kids for activities that aren't sponsored by the schools. [*] One such flyer, for an area church event, brought this message to around 2,000 elementary school kids:
Don't Neglect the 3 R's. Religion, Relationships and Rejoicing!
Shockingly, the Freedom From Religion Foundation objected. Cannily, their objection is not just directed at the religious message, but more generally to the entire concept of using the schools as a cheap substitute for advertising mail:
The District should not act as a PR machine for nonschool enterprises. Let these churches and groups do their own legwork: pay for advertising, leaflet neighborhoods, buy the available lists from the Department of Public Instruction.
The school district's response was amazingly weak in several respects. The superintendent described the policy's intent as creating a "limited public forum" [**], a school board member involved in establishing the policy suggested that some parents find it useful [***], and reportedly few parents avail themselves of an opt-out provision [****].

But what cinches the matter, especially given my warped perspective from the postal economics world, is the implied behavioral distortion from the subsidy. The pastor of the church reported having learned about the backpack mail system from other churches who had been using it. Here's what he said about the response rate:
"We did not get any new families or children as a result of the flier, nor did we get any phone calls or complaints about it," he said. "We just appreciate the cooperation we have had from the school district."
I'm sure they did. Other flyers reportedly attracted one or two families to events. If they had to mail the flyer, the church likely would have paid several hundred dollars for some combination of a mailing list, postage, and mail preparation services [*****]. Maybe someone has Actual Data to show that I'm wrong, but this seems to me like it would be lot of money to spend to get one family to attend a church picnic — enough, indeed, that I'd wager that they wouldn't have mailed the flyer at all if they didn't have the almost-free alternative postal system to use.

Like e-mail spam, where infinitesimal costs make it sustainable in the face of infinitesimal response rates, the school's almost-free distribution channel encourages advertising that wouldn't otherwise happen even with concessional rates available to nonprofit organizations. And it defies my credulity that a policy that promotes advertising that wouldn't be viable as direct mail is welfare-enhancing.

[*] The material must be for children's programs, be legal and "appropriate" in the view of the district, and not promote activities outside of school during the school day. Neither of the local papers' accounts indicated whether (and what kinds) of materials may have been screened as inappropriate, but that would seem to be a vulnerability for the policy, particularly if it were used to reject materials from some other faith-based group.

[**] These messages only are a "forum" in the "marketplace" sense of the term.

[***] The backpack mail is used by sponsors of a variety of activities (sports leagues, children's theatre groups, etc.) that reasonably may attract kids' interest, but which also are not at all hard to find by other means.

[****] This is the last refuge of the direct marketing scoundrel; the industry favors opt-out provisions over opt-in because the former are only relatively effective for severe nuisances like telemarketing.

[*****] The applicable postal rates start at about a dime off the 41-cent First-Class stamp price and can be as low as 6.6 cents, though accessing the steeper discounts usually requires engaging the services of mailing firms.

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Blogger TDEC said...

Very loosely on the topic of Actual Data and people knowing their rights, your post reminded me of an old Language Log one you might enjoy, a propos of the misrepresentation thereof.

Friday, September 21, 2007 10:43:00 AM  

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