A proposal by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District to fund a new technology school, in part, through corporate sponsorships has some observers questioning the infiltration of commercialism into public education.

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

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.

Such partnerships have triggered a debate in school districts around the country 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 some people worry that corporate influences in schools can go too far. The California-based Center for Commercial-Free Public Education argues that children become easy targets for advertising when their schools use scoreboards sponsored by soda companies or cafeterias contract to sell a specific product.

According to the center’s web site, “Commercialism in America’s classrooms is reaching epidemic proportions, with new forms of in-school advertising being discovered every week.”

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.”

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

Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District

http://www.cms.k12.nc.us

Center for Commercial-Free Public Education

http://www.commercialfree.org