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  • Writer's pictureDavid Brake

A Quick Thought on School District Customers

Updated: Apr 3

PK12 education is a special kind of big business. In the fall of 2021, there were 49.4 million students enrolled in our public schools and 5.5 million enrolled in private schools. Another 3.1 million kids are home schooled each year. Total expenditures in public-education only were $703 billion in 2021, or about $14,295 per student. Even for smaller school districts, running a school is a special kind of business.


The success of any business depends on customers. Who are the customers of a school district? Most educators we have spoken with say parents are the primary customers. Today, we’re going to take a closer look at a few current realities for students, the secondary customer. Students are likely the reason most educators ventured into this special business. Students are at the center of the educational ecosystem.


The Oxford English Dictionary has two primary definitions of a customer:


1.    A person or entity that buys goods or services from a business.


2.    A person of a specified kind that one has to deal with.


Implied in the first definition is that customers have a choice. A customer could choose another type of school or make no choice at all. Students are not expected to make that choice on their own. Sure, they may exercise some degree of choice in the courses they take at school, but they don’t generally choose the school they attend. That choice is made for them by parents or guardians, aka the primary customer. This means that students, as secondary customers, receive the services and benefits that the primary customer thinks they need.


It’s the second definition that is bemusing, to say the least. By defining a customer as someone you “have to deal with,” you are tacitly anticipating tension in the relationship ahead. You may be thinking about past experiences where both the primary and secondary customers had unreasonable requests, unrealistic expectations, and demonstrated troubling behaviors that make a teacher’s job less than pleasant at times. This is a special kind of business.

Does this Business Have a Future?

Let’s look at some of the factors and current realities that impact the future of our schools and your relationship with school customers. For the purpose of this post, we rely on a national picture of all PK12 students from the National Center for Education Statistics. As you read these data points, consider what you know about your own district. What are the similarities and differences? Are these your current realities?

Enrollment Trends 

Overall PK12 enrollment is declining. By 2030, enrollment levels are expected to decrease by 6 percent compared to where they were in 2020. That’s a difference of more than 2.5 million students.


Students with Learning Disabilities are on the Rise

Students with disabilities made up 15 percent of national public-school enrollment during the 2021-22 school year. By comparison, that number was 13 percent during the 2010-11 school year. This trend may suggest that a growing number of students aren’t getting what they need from their schools. It could also mean that educators have become better at identifying those students that would benefit from special services. Finally, it may suggest that parents have become more inclined to seek out these services for their children. Sadly, special education teachers have one of the highest vacancy rates: six percent. These are the realities.

Is There a Mental Health Crisis? 

Public schools have consistently reported that students’ mental health was among the top three concerns for students, parents, and educators. The NCES reports that only 56 percent of public schools strongly (13 percent) or moderately (43 percent) agreed that their school was able to effectively provide mental health services to all students in need. Combine this with a national shortage of mental health counselors and behavioral specialists, and you can see why some people say we have a mental health crisis in our schools.

Are We Turning Out Future-ready Students?

In a national survey conducted from 2019 – 2022 by YouScience, a college and career readiness company, 75 percent of high school graduates are not adequately prepared to make college and career decisions.

The YouScience survey reported 62 percent of students felt that high school should prepare them for future careers, yet 57 percent reported five or fewer conversations with teachers or counselors about their post-graduation futures. The most significant finding, however, was that 80 percent of students said they “would have been more engaged in their learning if they better understood their own aptitudes and potential career opportunities.”



You cannot satisfy your customers without good teachers. There were 3.2 million full-time teachers in our public schools in 2022 and approximately 500,000 teachers in private schools. Teachers are leaving the profession, and teacher recruitment and retention is now a major concern for many school districts in the country. Some data points to consider:

The Future Can Start Today

Yes, PK12 is a special kind of big business, from a national perspective. From where most of school stakeholders sit, however, it is a local business. This means that school districts should focus on defining a set of current realities that represent what is happening locally.

The process of focusing and defining should involve the stakeholders in your district. Only by engaging stakeholders around current realities can you develop and implement strategies that improve the customer experience and educational outcomes for the students at the center of it all.


David Brake is the founder and CEO of The Grandview Group, a consulting firm that helps organizations engage their stakeholders and elevate impact. We would love to talk with you about how your organization is engaging stakeholders and elevating impact.

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