A proposal by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in Charlotte, N.C., to fund a new technology school in part through corporate sponsorships is raising questions about the infiltration of commercialism into public education.

Corporations already have placed their names all over the sporting world by paying to give their name to stadiums and arenas. Now, school officials in Charlotte, N.C., are considering selling naming rights to classrooms and cafeterias.

Could the future hold schools across America featuring the Gateway computer lab or the Nike gymnasium?

The school board is considering a policy to allow some campus areas—including a technical high school now under construction in west Charlotte—to be named after a corporate entity that makes “significant contributions” to the school or district.

Until this time, Charlotte-Mecklenberg has had a restrictive naming policy for school property, allowing elements to be named only after people who have gained recognition in some way, district officials say. That policy may soon change, depending on the outcome of a Nov. 28 school board vote.

“In examining that policy and thinking ahead to the future, we now have the opportunity to take advantage of a corporate gift—be it a cash gift, a technology gift, or a services gift—and in return, allow that company to display [its] brand name in a prominent way,” said John Lassiter, vice-chair of the school board.

Although the proposed policy could apply to any school, Superintendent Eric Smith said it was crafted with the technical high school in mind.

The school’s focus will be preparing students for careers in computer science, manufacturing, transportation, construction, environmental science, and health science.

That means students will need training on expensive equipment that tight school budgets can’t always handle, Smith said. So, the district plans to ask businesses for help. Offering to name a lab, school wing, or other campus area after these businesses may encourage corporate donations, he said.

“In a time when schools have increasing need for revenue and difficulties generating that revenue, this is an avenue that, if properly done, could provide benefits to all involved,” Lassiter agreed. “Companies are focusing increasingly on the ability to display their brands. It is no different than naming rights to an NFL stadium or colleges allowing outside organizations to name their buildings. This can help the companies by showing their dedication to education.”

Lassiter said construction of the new technology high school is not dependent on whether the school board decides to accept corporate sponsorships. “The sponsorships are to provide enhancements and additional things like labs, hardware, and software,” he said.

Corporate sponsorships would “assure us that the type of equipment students are being trained on is still relevant in the workplace,” said Smith.

The school board would not identify any specific companies that might consider buying corporate sponsorships in the new technology high school. “We haven’t gotten that far yet. We are just in the policy-making stages now,” Lassiter said.

Board members have not talked about how a company’s name would be displayed, but “I would expect it to be appropriate to the area in question,” said board member Jim Puckett. “A library would obviously have a different approach than a cafeteria or a football stadium.”

Such partnerships have triggered a debate in school districts in Texas, New Hampshire, California, and elsewhere over how involved companies should be with schools.

Officials with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction didn’t know of any examples of schools naming campus areas after businesses, although there are plenty of instances in the Carolinas and elsewhere of schools teaming up with businesses for everything from school supplies to computers to pizza lunches.

“It’s not new at the K-12 level, in the sense that many schools have scoreboards donated by Coca-Cola or computers with the brand name displayed on the box. Branding is not new,” said Lassiter.

Denise Carter, head of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PTA Council, said the public schools could not function without outside business support. And school board members said they have yet to receive complaints about the proposal.

But there are those who worry that corporate influences in schools can go too far.

The California-based Center for Commercial-Free Public Education argues that schoolchildren become easy targets for advertising when their school districts use scoreboards sponsored by soda companies or when school cafeterias contract to sell a company’s fast-food product.

“To date, we’ve had no negative responses, which I find intriguing,” said Lassiter, citing the erstwhile debate over Channel One, the highly controversial classroom news program that provides news broadcasts, complete with commercials, to 40 percent of public school students in the United States each school day.

“Channel One, by bringing advertising directly into the classroom, sent a message that the schoolroom was no longer off-limits,” said Walter Hanna, executive director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education.

According to the center’s web site, “The issue of marketing to school kids goes much further [than Channel One]. Commercialism in America’s classrooms is reaching epidemic proportions, with new forms of in-school advertising being discovered every week.”

The issue is “all about making schoolchildren into a captive audience for advertisers, and the federal government should do everything in its power to stop it,” said Hanna.

But branding is not necessarily the same thing as advertising, district officials say.

“We are just talking about a name on a wall. It is not an active situation that asks you to make a decision when a screen comes up on a computer,” said Lassiter. “It would be naive to say that our kids aren’t exposed to broad-based commercialism at all times. But kids today are more sensitive to that, and they can sort through what they see. We’d be kidding ourselves to think we could insulate our kids from all forms of commercialism.”

If the school board approves the policy to name campus areas after corporations, it will weigh each case carefully, board chairman Arthur Griffin said. “That’s not to say we’re going to be guaranteeing a name, because some corporations do not have good community will.”

“We obviously would not enter into an arrangement with a company that sells alcohol, or cigarettes, or condoms,” Lassiter agreed.

If the policy receives a majority vote at the Nov. 28 school board meeting, it will go into effect immediately.

Links:

Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District
http://www.cms.k12.nc.us/

Center for Commercial-Free Public Education
http://www.commercialfree.org/

North Carolina Department of Public Instruction
http://www.dpi.state.nc.us/