ADVERTISING IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS
FEBRUARY 10, 1997
A growing number of public school districts around the country are turning to a controversial source of funding to stay afloat: they're accepting commercial advertising. Ads are in gyms, on "educational" videos and other collateral. Some think the policy is practical and does no real harm; others are crying foul. Rod Minot of KCTS in Seattle reports.
ROD MINOTT: Starting next fall, advertisements may grace the uniforms, gym walls and sports fields of Seattle public schools. That's because the school board has decided to raise money by seeking out corporate sponsors.
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DON NIELSEN, Seattle School Board: (on phone) You do the same thing there; we could raise a million bucks there easy.
ROD MINOTT: Don Nielsen, a member of the Seattle school board voted for the ad policy.
DON NIELSEN: I would argue that if exposing a middle schooler to a corporate logo--or two or three over even ten--in a given day provides us the vehicle to provide that child with either an after school athletic program, a drama program, a music program or additional mentoring in math, science, or English, it's a no-brainer to me.
ROD MINOTT: Some schools in the district already allow some advertising. For example, corporate logos are on soft drink machines and book covers. But this new city wide policy would be much larger and much more aggressive. The goal is to bring in $1 million a year in ad revenue. The money is badly needed because voters have capped how much state money can be spent on education. The legislature also reduced the amount of local taxes Seattle schools may collect from levies. According to Nielsen, those cuts came at time of growing student costs and difficulty in passing levies.
DON NIELSEN: The number of students, immigrant students; students in poverty which we have determined are students who are higher cost and more difficult to educate, those percentages are going up. Secondly, we've had trouble passing levies in this. We tried five times to pass a capital levy for new construction, and so the voters am saying, hey, we believe, we, the taxpayers, believe that education is (a) number one priority for us but, (b) you have enough money; spend it better.
BRITA BUTLER-WALL, Parent: Her principal was just sent this, which is a book cover. It comes from a company, Book Covers of America, has a "Beavis & Butthead Do America" ad. So he was sent, apparently, a whole box of these things.
ROD MINOTT: But some parents, like Brita Butler-Wall, remain opposed to any commercialism. Butler-Wall has two children in Seattle schools. As a leader of the Parent Teacher Student Association, she's helped organize opposition to the district's ad policy.
BRITA BUTLER-WALL, Parent: I think the policy itself is misguided, immoral, unethical. I think they really didn't think it through.
ROD MINOTT: Why?
BRITA BUTLER-WALL: Well, because advertising is there to sell products, and I just don't see that has anything to do with educating kids.
ROD MINOTT: This fight over commercialism in schools is not new. Parents and students also protested several years ago when some schools joined forces with Channel One, a 12-minute news show that carries two minutes of ads.
AD ANNOUNCER: If your next meal might be sometime off, remember, nothing satisfies like Snickers. Hungry? Why wait?
ROD MINOTT: In exchange for making watching Channel One mandatory, the schools get free use of a satellite dish, VCR's, and classroom TV monitors. Eleven of one hundred Seattle's schools felt that deal was too good to pass up.
SPOKESPERSON: This is going to take work. I mean, this is a very simplistic one.
ROD MINOTT: But consumer advocacy groups like Consumers Union have questioned the kinds of materials that often make their way into the classroom, materials that teachers like Lisa Beccera have received. Recently, she' was mailed a free curriculum kit from Hershey's Corporation.
LISA BECCERA: And then I opened it up --the chocolate dream machine. And I think the thing that made me laugh it off for that was a cross curricular program about the making of chocolate, and its place in a healthy lifestyle, sponsored by Hershey Foods Corporation.
AD SPOKESMAN: Hey, remember when we studied the food groups in school?
AD SPOKESPERSON: Yeah. Chocolate was at the top of the pyramid. It's okay to eat it, but as part of a well balanced died.
ROD MINOTT: Included in the kit was this video which contained frequent shots of Hershey's chocolate bars. Companies often send out these unsolicited school materials for free, hoping they can entice teachers to use them. And some teachers do, given that on average, they're forced to spend $420 a year out of their own pockets on classroom materials. But according to this report by the Consumers Union corporate sponsored-educational materials are often nothing more than advertisements. Of the 77 kits and packets studied more than half are found to be highly commercial. Nearly 80 percent contained biased information. But school officials say their expansion of advertising gives them a chance to review and control all ads.
DON NIELSEN: Right today things Are sent to all our schools by corporations and some of our schools pick ‘em up and some them, some of them don't--book covers, pamphlets, posters--but none of those things are reviewed by a group, and what's going to happen now is they will be reviewed by a group, and if we choose to use them, then the corporation is going to have to pay us something.
WOMAN SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER: And I know you all have your worst fears, and you're horrified with these thoughts, but when I voted for this policy, I did not imagine next week's spelling test brought to you by Snapple. That's not what we intended.
ROD MINOTT: At a recent public hearing, school officials explained why they approved the ad policy. Charts were used to warn that the district and its 47,000 students face a budget crisis that requires cutting $20 million over the next two years. Even so, school officials found themselves under fire for selling ads to raise money, with the vast majority of parents testifying against it.
PARENT: Why does our school board have to allow corporations further access to our children, to our children's minds? Our family has made a decision not to have a TV partly for that reason. And, in fact, if alternative funding sources can't be found, I would rather that my daughter not have her own desk at school than further be subjected to advertising.
DON NIELSEN: We don't know if this is going to work. We don't know if this is going to create lots of revenue, or no revenue, but I've got to tell you if the girls' hockey team at Washington Middle School is sponsored by Nordstrom, I'm not going to get upset.
PERSON IN AUDIENCE: (shouting) I am!
ANOTHER PERSON IN AUDIENCE: I am!
DON NIELSEN: That's your call.
ROD MINOTT: Despite assurances by Seattle school officials that any ads would be tasteful and would not end up in classrooms, critics continued to insist advertising has no place in schools.
ALEX MOLNAR, Education Expert: Advertisers really want to be in schools because there are so few places where there aren't ads anymore.
ROD MINOTT: One prominent critic invited to speak at the meeting was Alex Molar, a Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
ALEX MOLNAR: When you think about advertising in the schools, in essence, what you're saying is, our children aren't entities that we love. These children have to be looked at as a cash crop for what they can provide to somebody, or we're not going to educate them. We can't afford to educate our children unless we can harvest them for someone else's benefit.
ROD MINOTT: According to Molnar, companies are eager to tap into the spending power of the nation's 43 million school children, spending power that's estimated at more than $90 billion alone among teenagers. But advertising may not be a big money for schools. Take the example of Colorado Springs, Colorado. School officials here are selling ads on the sides of school buses, promoting products like 7-Up and Burger King. Other commercials decorate the school hallways. Although Colorado Springs officials charge fifteen hundred to twelve thousand dollars to advertise, they admit ad revenue has been disappointing. Since 1993, only $290,000 has been raised. Officials had expected to earn over $100,000 a year. Even so, school officials remain upbeat about the program.
DR. KENNETH BURNLEY, School Superintendent, Colorado Springs: What it has done, modestly returned a couple of thousand dollars to be used for student activity accounts and, well, people say, well, that's not a lot, well, you go ask a school, and they get a couple of thousand dollars, is that a real plus, and they say absolutely.
ROD MINOTT: Hoping to make more money in the future, the district recently switched to a new marketing agency. In Seattle, some teachers, like Eddie Reed, say any type of additional money, including advertising dollars, would be welcome. With funding problems already cutting janitorial service, the math instructor has been forced to sweep his own classroom floor.
EDDIE REED: You've got to try something I guess when you're in moments of crisis. I cannot come into my classroom every day with the idea, with the notion in my head, with the feeling in my gut that I cannot provide an absolute first-rate educational experience for the kids that are sitting in my seats.
ROD MINOTT: Seattle school officials argue advertising is just one of many non-traditional funding sources they're pursuing in hopes of saving public education. Many agree that success or failure here will likely impact how other school districts around the nation cope with commercialism in the classroom.