For schools facing shrinking budgets, a branded scoreboard on the football field or advertisement on a school bus can bring some much-needed cash. But such corporate sponsorships also could undermine students' critical thinking skills, education policy experts warn.
While commercialism in schools can directly harm students – marketing sodas and candy undermines nutrition curriculums, for instance – it also might discourage students from thinking critically about the brands, messages or topics sponsored in their schools, according to a report released yesterday by the National Education Policy Center.
"It's a whole panoply of marketing methods now available to schools, and it's becoming more and more (prevalent)," said Alex Molnar, lead author of the report and a research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. "The goal of it is to become more integrated into the pattern of everyday school life, so it's hard to tell where the advertising begins and ends. … These businesses are there for the kids? No, they're not. They're there for themselves; they're there to make money."
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After analyzing cases of corporate engagement in schools in North America and Ireland, researchers concluded that the missions of schools and the goals of corporations are inherently at odds: "When corporations enter the schools, there is going to be pressure to create student experiences and shape student attitudes in ways that support, or at least do not undermine, the corporate bottom line."
Researchers called on schools to pass on corporate sponsorships until they are proven to cause no harm to students and to also demonstrate educational benefit.
Schools that have opened their doors to corporate sponsors say those thresholds have been met. In California, several school districts in recent years have adopted policies to allow corporate sponsorship and grant facility naming rights. District officials say they vet partnerships carefully, banning those whose products conflict with school policy.
Education Funding PartnersA mockup from Education Funding Partners, a firm that connects schools with corporate sponsors, shows a sponsored scoreboard.
For the company, which Miller said she could not yet disclose, "it's the development of your next workforce." The company has asked to use the building during the summer, when school is not in session, as a training center for its employees. Local colleges also will use the facility for its observatory and weather station, she said.