Corporations donate millions for public school programs

Critics decry growing trend of "commercialism" in schools

Seeking corporate donations has become increasingly popular as an alternative way for school districts to raise money for additional programs and activities that are not covered by their regular, publicly funded budgets.

In a recent article examining the issue of school fundraising, The Detroit News reported that Detroit Public Schools, which serves approximately 150,000 students, received $519,000 in individual and corporate donations during the 1999-2000 school year. Though that may seem like a large amount of money, Detroit hasn't scratched the surface of what financial contributions, particularly corporate donations, could provide.

For example, Chicago Public Schools, with nearly three times the enrollment of Detroit schools, raked in $18 million in corporate and individual donations during the 1999-2000 school year-35 times more than Detroit received last year. Colorado Springs, a 33,000-student district formerly run by current Detroit Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Burnley, raises approximately $1.5 million a year and spends most of its extra money on reading and writing programs.

Arguing for increased corporate involvement in education, former president of the Plymouth-Canton school district board, Mark Horvath, told the News, "It is time we utilize businesses as a revenue stream for the schools."

Why are businesses giving money to public schools in addition to the taxes they already pay?

"It's a win-win situation," Tony Rokita, special events coordinator for the Chicago Bulls professional basketball team told The Detroit News. "We are providing something the district needs and it's great public relations." The Bulls recently donated $3.5 million for an after-school Bulls Scholar enrichment program.

In Michigan, groups including the Detroit Lions, EDS, Chrysler, Ford, Compuware, and Delphi Automotive have all pitched in to donate products or services to schools around the state. School districts pair up with local or national businesses that give them funding in exchange for selling their product or promoting the company.

One of the more popular methods for raising money is for a school or school district to sign an exclusive beverage contract with Coca-Cola or Pepsi in return for a share in the profits. The practice tripled across the nation from 1997 to 1999 and now includes 150 districts in 29 states, including many in Michigan, according to The Detroit News.

Robert J. Kemmery, principal of Eastern Technical High School in Baltimore County and president of the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals, told the Baltimore Sun that schools in his area are relying more on businesses for extra money. "The money obtained through vending machine beverage sales has permitted students to participate in drama productions, interscholastic sports programs, clubs and organizations that support the overall traditional curricular program," Kemmery said.

Traditional public schools are not the only educational institutions taking advantage of opportunities to involve local businesses in the education process. The Plymouth Educational Center, a charter school in Detroit, is seeking business partners to help finish a new $8-million facility and help fund other improvements. Executive director Vivian Ross says the school's largest donors are foundations and other nonprofit organizations, but that local, private enterprises are becoming increasingly interested in funding her school.

Corporations also offer myriad programs to students, such as internships, summer camps, and work opportunities. One notable program, in Michigan's Southfield High School, allows students to operate an in-school Kinko's copy and office-supply store instead of a school-run enterprise. The store serves students, teachers, administrators, and community members while providing work experience and training in office management, printing and design and giving Kinko's a chance to advertise its services to the community.

Echoing Rokita, Margaret Holcomb, business partnership director for the Southfield district, agrees, "It's a win-win situation."

But not everyone sees it that way. A growing number of parents and other critics are concerned that corporations see school children as simply another market to be conquered and that by allowing advertisers free reign in the school environment, America may turn out a cadre of "consumer cadets" little interested in intellectual pursuits.

Almost as if to confirm critics' worst fears, groups like Lifetime Learning Systems, a company that specializes in business/school partnerships, markets its services to businesses with brochures explaining that, "Through these materials, your product or point of view becomes the focus of discussions in the classroom . . . the centerpiece in a dynamic process that generates long-term awareness and lasting attitudinal change." Elsewhere, Lifetime Learning explains, "Now you can enter the classroom through custom-made learning materials created with your specific marketing objectives in mind."

One of the primary critics of commercialism, the Center for Commercial Free Education, a national non-profit based in Oakland, Calif., says its purpose is to "provide support to students, parents, teachers and other concerned citizens organizing across the United States to keep their schools commercial-free and community-controlled." The center offers a number of community action and youth programs to discourage the use of commercial contracts and advertising in schools around the country.

Some school districts also are speaking out against commercialism. In June 1999, the San Francisco school board voted to prohibit the use of textbooks and other instructional material that mention brand names. The board also banned exclusive beverage contracts, saying the agreements could imply that the schools endorsed certain products.

Bill McMaster, Michigan chairman of Taxpayers United, agreed with the board's actions, telling The Detroit News that, "Corporate sponsorships in the school system are exploitive of the children and wrong. Not only is it unethical, but it is wrong to subject kids to commercialism in an educational environment." And in a recent editorial, nationally syndicated columnist George Will wrote, "schools are becoming case studies in the commodification of everything."

However, so long as school districts struggle with ways to pay for ever-more expensive programs, it is likely that partnerships between businesses and schools will expand. The debate over whether this is good or bad for education is sure to intensify as districts seek more funding through corporate contracts and donations, and businesses seek the positive community image such activity engenders.