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Corporate-sponsorship program may ease school fund raising

Wednesday, August 29, 2001

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Selling candy bars and gift wrap is tedious and annoying. Signing exclusive contracts with soft-drink companies brings all sorts of protests.

So what's a cash-strapped school district to do to raise funds?

There's a new money-making method that its marketers say is easier than door-to-door sales and more palatable than restrictive contracts.

The America's Schools program allows large corporate donors to channel funds to schools without the appearance of direct corporate sponsorship. Instead of individual corporate logos, such as the Nike swoosh or Pepsi's yin-and-yang-like circle, companies that participate in the program agree to display the official star-shaped America's Schools logo.

In addition, corporations can license the logo for placement on actual products (remember the Olympic symbol on the side of soda cans?) in exchange for donating a percentage of the sales to the program.

Schools, in turn, get a share of that revenue by providing support for the America's Schools program by displaying or publicizing the logo in school materials, on Web sites or school newspapers, on purchase orders and in letters to the local PTA. There is no fee to join and schools can quit at any time, and the money can be used at each school's discretion.

Granted, the money raised won't pay for construction programs or other pricey projects. "But if it can put $10,000 into the hands of a local principal that he can use to pay for a music program or an art teacher [who] only comes in two days a week, that's substantial," said Dana Martin, senior vice president of general operations for the marketing firm International School Licensing Corporation (ISLC), which created America's Schools in conjunction with several state school board associations.

As for businesses, most want to put money into education and school programs, Martin added. What do corporate sponsors get out of the deal? An opportunity to build an allegiance with as many as 110 million consumers for their products, said Martin.

"People will buy their products because they support their schools," he said. There are no sponsors yet, said Martin, who would not reveal the names of companies ISLC has approached.

Though ISLC has yet to sign a major sponsor, Martin said the company was approaching Fortune 500 companies in every category, including airlines, beverage companies, hotel chains and banks. ISLC's initial goal is to recruit five national sponsors at a minimum of $25 million per company per year.

Martin said each potential corporate sponsor will be evaluated, and must be approved by a national board comprising members of participating state school board associations.

America's School's timing couldn't be better, as a growing number of schools depend on corporate sponsors to raise money for educational programs.

According to a recent study by the Trust to Reach Education Excellence, the foundation of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, one-third of schools report that their funding situation is worse now than it was five years ago.

"The bottom line is that schools are not adequately funded by taxpayers," said Michael Carr, spokesman for NASSP. "Communities are asking schools to do so much more than they did even 10 years ago, and every new class or program or attempt to bring teachers up to snuff costs money."

As a result, corporate marketing on public school campuses has become so pervasive that the General Accounting Office, a watchdog arm of Congress, commissioned the first congressional study of commercial activities in the schools two years ago. Today, 19 states -- not including Pennsylvania -- have statutes or regulations that specifically address school-related commercial activities, according to the GAO report.

Martin said it would probably take about four years before the America's School symbol will have impact. But already, its pitch appears to be working.

To date, 15 state school board associations have agreed to participate in the program, said Martin. Five more states, including Pennsylvania, are reviewing the program.

Joseph Oravitz, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, who met recently with ISLC officials, said it would take "awhile" for the board to review the program and decide if it wants to implement it in the state. His first reaction, though, is that the America's Schools program appears to be a "good way to focus attention on public education and involve the community at large and corporations in schools," he said.

The program isn't without its critics.

Though "on the surface" the America's Schools program looks as if it's a step in the right direction, Andrew Hagelshaw, director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education in Oakland, Calif., said he still found several aspects troubling.

While he applauds the fact that the program involves no brand-name advertising, Hagelshaw takes issue with the fact that schools are contractually obligated to display the symbol in some manner, even though ISLC leaves it up to each individual school to determine what's appropriate.

"Sure, they want to get the word out, but it makes me nervous they tell schools how and where to display the logo," he said. "Why obligate the schools by contract if that is what is supposed to set them apart? It's heading down a slippery slope."

Hagelshaw also worries that school administrators -- who typically don't hold business degrees -- are no match for savvy corporate marketers. Schools, he said, should be deciding what the terms of an agreement are, not businesses. But most are so desperate for corporate money to keep school programs alive, "They may be signing away more than they should, and that makes me nervous," he said.

The real solution to underfunded school programs, he said, is more public dollars for public education.

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