Should cash-strapped schools turn to corporate advertising and sponsorships to raise money or do such deals take advantage of students, who are a captive audience for the sales pitches?
That debate is about to occur in Douglas County, which is considering advertising deals and sponsorships with national firms, something that some districts have already done as a way to cope with budget crunches. Douglas is facing a $775 million fall in the local tax digest and nearly $70 million in austerity cuts in the last eight years.
Here is an excerpt from a good story in the Douglas County Sentinel on a report to the board on corporate ads by Douglas County Schools Financial Officer Kay Turner:
“This type of revenue is commonly done at the university level but is not something school districts have done as much,” Turner said. “We are now looking at partnerships with national companies, the Apples of the world. Larger school districts like Cobb County and Atlanta Public Schools have done this, and that is something we will be looking at as part of our research.”
Many different possibilities were put on the table during the presentation. For athletics, signage on scoreboards, fences, baseball fields, tennis courts, sides and backs of bleachers was discussed, as well as possible homecoming and sideline sponsorships, printed materials and T-shirt giveaways. For auditoriums, there may be signage on the stage, marquee, entrance or seat backs, as well as sponsorships for back-to-school orientations, T-shirt giveaways and logo rights on sound equipment or instruments. Cafeterias may have logos on the walls, trays, sneeze guards, tray liners, cups, napkins, food containers, floors and chairs and may also have healthy snack giveaways.
Turner said the district would be extremely cautious, especially when it comes to younger children in the district. “At the elementary level, it would be more like a back-to-school activity with a corporate sponsor to provide food. You may have a field trip with a corporate sponsor providing funding. At that level, it would be a different kind of funding. One thing we talked about was healthy snack giveaways. You may have a corporate sponsor, but we’re not talking about putting in Burger King ads. We will be very selective and won’t have ads all over the place; it would have to have a good focus.”
Some school board members, like District 4 representative Samuel Haskell, said they are okay with ads as long as unhealthy foods are not being promoted to kids. “I don’t want to see us putting lots of snack vending and soda vending machines, but if we can help companies advertise, I wouldn’t be against that,” said Haskell.
Haskell said he would not be opposed to ads for clothing companies or cell phones, pointing to the growing emphasis on technology the school system already has in place. “We already have bring-your-own technology at New Manchester High School. That could be a wonderful kind of competition.” Haskell was less keen on plastering company names on a school wall, saying that if the schools do pursue any logo advertising that it should be on a month-to-month basis and even then it should be at the high school level only.
During Monday’s presentation, District 1’s Mike Miller brought up the issue of political advertising, which is currently banned by school board policy. Miller said it can be an issue because of the First Amendment, which is another point the board will consider going forward.
“I look forward to this, with caution,” District 3 BOE member Janet Kelley said. “I don’t know if I foresee Mitt Romney or Barack Obama sponsoring local schools.”
Turner emphasized that the school system is very early in the process and will take extreme caution with any measures taken in the initiative. “If we had a vendor like HP wanting to donate funding for software it would be an additional tool for students… It’s more sponsorship than advertising and it would also be tied into the curriculum. We’ll be trying to enhance our instructional process, we’re not just looking for money or revenue at any cost, it’s revenue we can attain while helping our students.
The discussion in Douglas County has already prompted a letter from Public Citizen asking the Board of Education to keep a “commercial culture” out of its schools. Here is the letter from Robert Weissman, president of the consumer protection group, to Jeff Morris, the chair of the Douglas board.
Dear Mr. Morris,
Commercial Alert is a project of Public Citizen, a consumer protection organization based in Washington, D.C., with more than 225,000 members and supporters. We aim to keep commercial culture within its proper sphere, and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and democracy.
We understand that the Board of Education of the Douglas County School System is considering permitting commercial advertising on its properties; we write to urge the Board not to move forward with these plans. We understand that the financial pressures your school district currently faces make you eager to identify non-traditional sources of funding. We know your primary concern is to avoid shortchanging students as a result of budget cuts. However, subjecting children to even greater amounts of advertising is the wrong response. It will raise little revenue while undermining Douglas County’s educational and child development mission. Educational institutions should promote civic virtue and the public good, not commercial values.
As you know, childhood and adolescence are crucial periods for young pupils to develop their identities. Corporations exploit these developmental challenges, and convey through sophisticated marketing strategies that children should build their identities and judge their peers based on what they have, rather than on who they are. In the process, children end up with a damaged sense of self, superficial worldview, and a diminished sense of social responsibility. There is no need to overstate the case; certainly, many children navigate the world of hyper-marketing successfully. But it is nonetheless a negative influence – one that schools, of all places, should not be promoting. Children are already surrounded by near-constant advertising that promotes consumerism and commercial values. But the ubiquity of advertising is not a reason for allowing corporate naming rights and in-school advertising to persist – it is a reason why children need a sanctuary from a world where everything seems to be for sale.
Some advocates of school advertising believe that setting appropriate guidelines for these practices can curb potential harms. But more often than not, these guidelines offer virtually no protection to students. Corporations that sell harmful products to children will be among those most interested in targeting them by pursuing advertising opportunities. In school districts across the country that permit advertising, district guidelines have not prevented companies selling fast food, soda, and other unhealthful products from advertising on school properties.
But it is not only the presence of corporations selling unhealthy or morally questionable products in schools that raises concerns. Corporate advertisers advance values inconsonant with those schools stand for. Education should empower students to think critically and independently. Students should be encouraged to form their own beliefs, to question established ideas, and to develop intellectual curiosity. Marketing and advertising contravene these goals. Commercialism teaches students that everything has a price. In-school advertising and marketing schemes convey market rather than civic values and impede the ability of schools to function as open spaces where ideas are freely exchanged and the next generation of public-minded, conscientious, and virtuous students can grow.
Weighted against the real harms of school commercialism, the financial benefits of such schemes are minuscule. School advertising programs rarely bring in significant funds, and the small revenues often barely offset the administrative cost and burden of putting them in place.
We urge you to stop any plans for commercial advertising within the Douglas County School System. We look forward to your response, and would be pleased to discuss these matters with you further.
Robert Weissman, President Public Citizen
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog