Cash-Strapped Schools Turn to Businesses for Help, Sparking Concerns

Plummeting tax revenue and shrinking budgets have put an unprecedented amount of stress on America's educational system -- and Corporate America has been stepping in to help. Companies like Target (TGT), Campbell Soup (CPB) and Procter & Gamble (PG) are increasingly putting up the money for everything from team uniforms to lesson plans.

While these companies may seem like saviors to some, many parents and education advocates worry that they can cross a line between corporate charity and blatant attempts to market to kids. Schools argue they have nowhere else to turn -- and, in many cases, they're right.

At least 29 states and the District of Columbia have cut spending on K-12 education, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. California, Hawaii, Michigan and Mississippi have drastically slashed school budgets, the report says. And more reductions are on the way. In Virginia and Mississippi, for instance, governors are proposing K-12 budgets cuts of 11% and 9%, respectively.

Corporate Sponsorships: A Necessary Evil?

"There are many districts and states (not to mention university systems) that are facing severe budget cuts," says Doug Lynch, vice dean at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. "Are these children going away? Have their education needs diminished? Nope, that isn't what is driving these cuts. The needs are the same or increasing, it is the resources that are scarcer. So, we can put our heads in the sand and talk about what ought to be or what might be, or we can be creative about solutions. I think most superintendents put their kids first, and so the question is: Which is the lesser of two evils -- doing without, or finding creative ways of doing business?"

The end result, Lynch says, is that schools need to be "more entrepreneurial" to survive.

Entrepreneurial indeed. Even the National PTA is working with corporations to create programs that will "positively affect the bottom line" for thousands of schools across the country. "We're looking more and more at our friends on the business side for their generosity and investment in children and education," wrote Charles Saylors, president of the organization.

Public schools in San Diego County, Calif., are seeking corporate sponsors to help them fund extracurricular activities.Target is already offering scholarships to an outdoor education school in the area, while Kaiser Permanente is helping to fund a nutritional program for the county's schools, according to Jim Easterbrooks, a spokesman for the San Diego County Office of Education.

"We are not going to sell anything on the backs of kids," says Easterbrooks, whose district serves 500,000 students.

Turn Labels Into Minivans

Some corporate sponsorship efforts are a little less subtle. Procter & Gamble, the world's largest consumer products maker, provides school curriculum material, including lesson plans and videos featuring Crest toothpaste, Puffs tissues and Always feminine hygiene products. Other popular programs, such as Campbell Soup's Labels for Education and General Mills's (GIS) Boxtops for Education initiatives, encourage students and teachers to buy the company's products in order to redeem labels, coupons or box tops for cash, supplies, equipment and even vehicles. Campbell's program, which has been around since 1973, awards schools roughly five minivans a year.

"Our program remains especially important and relevant today, as many schools are struggling with reduced budgets," says Anthony Sanzio, a spokesman for the Camden, N.J.-based company.

What's hard to determine is the degree to which these schools are being altruistic versus exploitative. After all, children are seen as ideal targets for marketers because many have yet to establish brand loyalties. Why not get in front of them early and sway them to buy your toothpaste now?

Bruce Howard, a spokesman for the National Federation of State High School Associations, a group that represents high school sports associations across the country, says he understands why the growth in school sponsorships may worry some people. "Over time, people have had to look at things differently," he says. "In some cases, it's that or have no programs at all."

Assessing the Damage of Marketing in Schools

Alex Molnar, a professor of education at Arizona State University and the author of Giving Kids the Business: The Commercialization of American Schools, says the benefits corporations provide to schools are modest compared with the problems they cause by bombarding children with marketing messages. Research that Molnar helped conduct found that commercial activity in schools rose 473% between 1990 and 2001. Molnar, who has studied the issue for more than a decade, says the commercialization trends have only gotten more extreme since the study was published.

"Things are getting worse, and I see no sign that they are getting better," says Molnar, the head of ASU's Commercialism in Education Research Unit. "Corporate sponsorships undermine the school's curriculum. They rarely reinforce it."

Businesses, though, argue that they only have the students' best interests in mind. Today's students are tomorrow's employees after all, and corporations already spend tens of millions annually teaching workers remedial skills that they never learned in school.

"Approaching a Precipice"

"Before they cut education budgets, responsible elected officials should first look to the many greater opportunities to find savings within state budgets," says State Farm Insurance's CEO Edward Rust Jr., co-chairman of the Business Alliance for Student Achievement. "Reductions in effective education spending will have much heavier long-term consequence for individual states and for our nation."

It appears schools are far from severing their ties with big business. "We are now approaching a precipice where we are seeing very large cuts in school budgets," says Henry Levin, William H. Kilpatrick Professor of Economics & Education at Teachers College of Columbia University. "There will be more outreach to business. There is no doubt."
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