Schools turn to marketing deals

Posted: Wednesday, January 14, 2004

In California's Scotts Valley, the local school district faces the prospect of slashing $900,000 from a $15 million budget next year. So the district hired a marketing firm to find companies willing to sponsor a new swim center or theater at the local high school.

In return, according to school board member Allison Niday, companies will get plaques to advertise their help, or mentions in school newspapers.

Similar deals are being made across the country at all levels of education as money-strapped schools increasingly turn to companies for financial support.

''First and foremost, our schools are struggling,'' the National School Boards Association's Dan Fuller said. ''Many districts are engaged in this (commercialism) because of the dire straits they're in. This presents a real opportunity and a trend that will continue and possibly grow.''

As a result, corporate advertisements are cropping up on everything from high school scoreboards to the sides of school buses. A Dr Pepper billboard is atop a Texas school, earning that school district millions of dollars.

And soft drinks are being sold under contract in many schools.

In Seattle, the school district its budget so tight that nearly 200 staffers had to be cut has renewed an exclusive deal with Coca-Cola Co. for vending machines in middle and high schools. The five-year contract, worth more than $1.5 million for the district, helps fund field trips, yearbooks, school newspapers and extracurricular activities.

Colleges and universities and even New York City itself have also been signing on with corporations.

The University of Vermont is getting $4.3 million over 10 years from Coca-Cola in exchange for giving the company the right to provide all the soft drinks, bottled water, packaged juices and sports drinks sold in vending machines and campus dining rooms.

Just a few months ago, the makers of Snapple won exclusive rights to sell their bottled water and fruit juices in vending machines on all city property in New York, including schools. Snapple will pay the city $106 million and spend $60 million more to market and promote the city over the five-year contract. The city's public school system is the nation's largest, with 1,200 schools and 1.1 million students.

Critics say such deals erode the schools' long-held ability to insulate children from marketing and promote a climate where children are being asked to pay for education one soda at a time. And the sale of soft drinks in school, they argue, may add to the roughly 15 percent of children and teens that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls overweight.

''It's really a bargain with the devil because what these districts essentially are doing is selling their students' health,'' said Alex Molnar, head of the Arizona State University's Commercialism in Education Research Unit, which studies corporate involvement in schools.

Niday, mother of two children, in the fourth and eighth grades, said ''going to corporate sponsorship is a little sad.'' But she insists her 2,700-student district in Scotts Valley has few other options after the community already rallied to raise $400,000 to mitigate additional cuts this school year, sparing some library aides, program supervisors and counselors.

The district so far has partnered with a construction company that will provide $14,000 and im-provements at Scotts Valley's middle school, and a roofing firm that will give $5,000 and gardening boxes to several schools.

''The state funding process is broken, and to sit back and wait for it to be fixed is to do nothing for our children,'' Niday said. ''We have to look at different mechanisms for our funding,''

During the 1990s, the number of exclusive corporation-school marketing deals jumped 13-fold while the number of sponsored educational materials supplied by big business or trade groups grew 18-fold, according to a 2000 study by Molnar's group.

Meanwhile, the General Ac-counting Office in 2000 reported that just 19 states then had laws and regulations governing commercial activities in public schools.

To Molnar, school districts chasing commercialism deals ''have sort of lost themselves in a race to the bottom,'' Molnar said. ''Until the state and a school district erects a clear barrier and draws a bright line, the bad practices are going to drive out the good.''

But in Scotts Valley, florist Dennis Perry says savvy children already have been exposed to marketing ''anyplace and everyplace.''

''As long as the upper hand is given to schools to dictate where the money's going and what's being advertised, I don't think it's a problem,'' said Perry, the father of a third-grader.

''You either embrace it and make it work in your favor or it passes you up.''

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