DALLAS — Splayed across school buses, embedded in test papers and even splashed on campus roofs, advertisements have crept into the once-sacred realm of the school zone.
Marketers find an eager host in Texas school districts, which are scrounging for funds to bolster baseline budgets. Just this school year, North Texas districts have started launching companies’ ads in parent newsletters, plastering signs on campus vehicles and booking commercials on video scoreboards. But as more schools embrace this option, questions emerge about the commercialization of public education and the effort’s real beneficiaries.
“Schools should be a place where students grow into critical thinkers and develop skills that enable them to question established ideas,” said Elizabeth Ben-Ishai, the author of an analysis released last month by Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer interest group. “Marketing and ads targeting students is running in the opposite direction.”
A report last year by the National Education Policy Center warned of similar repercussions. It accused advertisers of “undermining curricular messages,” such as when candy and soft drink endorsements contradict nutrition lessons.
Texas, among a handful of states to allow advertising on yellow buses, has some of the most relaxed laws on marketing in schools. Districts have partnered with soda companies or strewn signs on stadium walls for years. But the latest attempts represent a more dramatic shift.
At least a dozen North Texas school districts, including Dallas and Irving, have painted buses with images of dentists and banks. Carrollton- Farmers Branch ISD has placed real estate and haunted house ads in its two weekly e-newsletters. Allen Independent School District has enticed corporate sponsors with a $35,000 annual package for its new stadium. And Irving ISD just announced the first Texas partnership with a firm that brokers ad deals with Fortune 500 companies.
The driving factor: money.
The state Legislature cut $4 billion in education funding last summer, along with an additional $1.4 billion in education grant programs. Districts have laid off teachers and slashed programs to cover the shortfall.
“Under the current finances, I don’t think you can shy away from anything,” said Allen ISD spokesman Tim Carroll. “There’s a place for it when it can be done tastefully, especially in the context of a sporting venue. It’s not like we’re bringing in Hooters.”
Even more districts are eyeing the possibility. Frisco ISD has created a committee to explore advertising opportunities. Humble ISD, near a major Houston airport, wants to sell space on the high school’s rooftop. It already sold the naming rights to much of its stadium. The Dallas school district recently revised its policy banning advertising on school buildings.
“It’s a case of ideology trumping pragmatism,” said board member Mike Morath, who has pushed the sale of naming rights on district facilities. “People have in their minds that education should be pure and devoid of mercantilism in American society. It’s not rational.”
A California school has gone as far as to sell ads on tests. North Texas districts say they plan to limit endorsements in classrooms and select what gets placed on their property. But it remains unclear whether they will snag enough money to make the effort worthwhile.
In its most recent report, Public Citizen found that advertising brings in less than 1 percent of district budgets. Plano ISD, one of the first districts in the state to attempt school bus advertising, dropped the program in 2008 after it failed to make money.
“It wasn’t worth the constant hassle,” said interim Superintendent Richard Matkin, who watched the district partner unsuccessfully with two marketing agencies.