With school budgets tighter than they’ve been in several years, a growing number of school leaders nationwide are tapping into a revenue stream that many people believe should have no place in academia: corporate sponsorships. Now, two new organizations aim to profit by bringing schools and companies together, helping schools earn money for technology and other programs in exchange for the right to attach, or “brand,” a company’s name to their initiatives.

California-based Wise Connection is a unique marketing firm whose mission is to play matchmaker for cash-strapped schools and civic-minded corporations. For a fee, the company matches schools with local businesses interested in sponsoring anything from school building renovations to new computer labs or even ice-cream socials.

The America’s Schools Program (ASP), also of California, has created a national licensing program that enlists schools and businesses. Participating organizations adopt and display a special ASP logo indicating their support of the program. Companies pay for the right to take part, and most of the proceeds go to participating schools.

Though the methodologies of the two organizations differ, their goals are the same: to broker successful business relationships between schools and corporations. Such deals are win-win situations for all involved, the companies say: Schools get extra money to supplement their budgets, and businesses get additional exposure and the good will generated by their financial support.

But not everyone agrees. One outspoken critic of the practice is Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a nonprofit organization that opposes what it calls the “commercialization” of the nation’s schools.

“We send kids to school to teach them how to read and write and learn to think–not to shop,” he said. Even if companies direct their marketing campaigns to parents as opposed to students, Ruskin said, the concept itself is ethically flawed.

“Integrity means respect,” he added. “[This practice] essentially turns the school into an auxiliary huckster and at substantial risk to the school’s integrity.”

Wise Connection

Bracing for a third straight year of budget reductions, officials at the Scotts Valley Unified School District in northern California recently tapped Wise Connection to recruit corporate sponsors who could help take some of the sting out of education-related spending cuts.

Scotts Valley officials expect they’ll be forced to cut close to $1 million from a $15 million budget next year. And with approximately 85 percent of the district’s budget focused on payroll, there isn’t likely to be much left over to support technology initiatives and other classroom programs, said school board member Allison Niday.

According to Michele Tummino, Wise Connection’s founder and director of community relations, the idea is to approach only those potential benefactors who have demonstrated a commitment to the community and who have a vested interest in preparing tomorrow’s workforce for success in a 21st-century economy.

The concept is simple. Tummino and her marketing team seek out regional or national companies that have advertising dollars to spend and invite them to sponsor an event or program in the district. Once a deal is struck, Wise Connection plans a marketing campaign with the schools. Depending on the size of the financial contribution, this could mean anything from a sign announcing the corporate sponsorship of Back-to-School Night to a plaque dedicating a contribution to the media center or top billing in a newsletter sent home to parents.

In return, the sponsoring company has two options: It can either donate a portion of its profits to the schools, or agree to an up-front payment that includes the schools’ share as well as a small percentage for the agency. That way, Tummino said, schools can participate at no cost.

Not that corporate advertising in schools is anything new. Across the country, many schools already have opened their doors to big-name advertisers such as Coca-Cola Co. and Pepsi Co. The soda machines lining the halls and locker rooms of most schools are a testament to that, Tummino said–as are the credit cards that pledge to donate a portion of your bill to the school of your choice, and the dental hygiene campaigns that send smiling students home with a new toothbrush and a tube of Crest or Colgate toothpaste. The problem is, she said, schools don’t see much in the way of a return from such programs.

“These big companies really aren’t giving the schools much of anything except the opportunity to become a giant convenience store,” Tummino said. “It really has to be a win-win situation for both parties in order for this thing to work.”

Instead of allowing corporate sponsors to establish a presence in their buildings virtually free of charge, Tummino recommends schools take a more business-minded approach. “Schools are so used to being beggars and taking whatever is given to them,” she said–but corporations often are willing to shell out a lot more if asked.

In October, the Scotts Valley educational foundation announced the first two sponsorships secured through Wise Connection: a $14,000 donation from a local construction company to help build a new middle school, and $5,000 from a local roofing firm to address budget concerns.

In all, Niday–a ranking member on the local school board and mother of two middle-school students–estimates the district has seen more than $60,000 in donations and sponsorships since entering into its relationship with the recruiting firm.

But that’s just the beginning. Tummino recently reached an agreement with one of the region’s largest realtors in which the company has agreed to pay the district a 1.5-percent commission on the price of every home sold across the area in exchange for marketing rights in the schools. In a region where the average house costs upwards of $650,000, the deal could elicit quite a windfall for the district, she said.

Though Tummino views Scotts Valley as a test bed for her unorthodox marketing tactics, she hopes eventually to engage in national sponsorships and said her firm already is in talks with a number of big-name companies, including one of the nation’s largest brokerage firms.

That’s good news for parents like Niday, who say they’ve been running out of options. Last year, for instance, the district was able to raise more than $400,000 in donations from parents to save the jobs of staff members ranging from library clerks to guidance counselors. But with budget scenarios worsening, it’s not likely they’ll be so lucky this time around.

“People need to recognize the dire straits we’re in,” she said. “The mess [California] is in right now has really mandated this path for us.”

Wise Connection refuses to seek partnerships with companies that hawk alcohol, tobacco, or fast-food products, including soft drinks. It also is not actively pursuing corporations that market to children. In general, Tummino says, the firm seeks companies that deal in family-oriented services such as housing and banking. In that regard, she says, educators shouldn’t feel like they’re competing for a child’s interest or attention against a flashy toy company or video game manufacturer.

Tummino hasn’t sold everyone on the pitch, however. Commercial Alert’s Ruskin says it has less to do with the intentions of the advertiser than it does with the integrity and authority of the educational institution.

The problem boils down to an issue of trust. Despite the inadequacies inherent in today’s public education system, he said, most Americans still have faith in the institution. But that trust, he warns, is waning–and its integrity is compromised once stakeholders show a willingness to let corporate America buy its way into the school system.

America’s Schools Program

Corporate sponsorships of educational programs also can raise ethical dilemmas for school leaders. In Scotts Valley’s case, for example, one could argue that the roofing firm’s donation of $5,000 unfairly gives it an edge over competitors when the district must solicit bids for any roofing work.

The America’s Schools Program was designed to ease this concern. It’s a national initiative whose goal is to incorporate every K-12 school in the nation under one instantly recognizable symbol: a large star that schools are invited to hang in cafeterias and stamp on report cards and office stationery to show their participation in the program.

The idea, according to ASP chief executive Don Baird, is analogous to how the International Olympic Committee licenses its famous five-ring symbol to corporations for a fee to help fund the Winter and Summer games.

Already under way in a number of states, including California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, and Texas, ASP seeks to form partnerships with state school board associations which, in turn, agree to promote the use of this national symbol in schools.

Participating schools stand to make money by receiving a portion of the proceeds collected by ASP’s corporate partners. On the business side, ASP seeks out national companies and organizations and asks them to donate a slice of their sales revenue to schools. Businesses then are invited to place the ASP logo on their products, demonstrating to consumers that they support–and give money to–education.

For schools, the allure is that they do not have to endorse a particular product to receive the money. Instead, they support a generic symbol, providing an alternative for stakeholders who say the presence of corporate logos in schools is a risk not worth taking.

So far, the organization has formed a number of alliances, including a bottled water deal that gives a portion of all bottled water sold in select stores to participating schools; a nationwide ink-jet recycling program that gives up to $1 for every printer cartridge refilled by business organizations back to education; an affinity credit card program that donates a portion of every item purchased with it back to schools; and, most recently, an agreement with the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation to support its programs in member restaurants and business offices across the country.

To get enough national corporations to sign on, however, Baird first must create awareness of the symbol. Businesses, he admits, are reluctant to sign up unless they are convinced that their message will reach a national audience. Only then, he says, will the initiative show potential to drive the bottom line.

Baird said he isn’t sure how much money ASP has brought into participating schools to date, but it probably isn’t more than “a few thousand [dollars]”–though he hopes that will change.

“These things take a while to get rolling,” said Baird, who expects his company will spend upwards of $7 million before the trend catches on nationally. He compares what ASP is trying to do in K-12 schools to what the NCAA did with college athletics. “It’s really the same thing,” he said. “The idea is to create one instantly recognizable symbol.”

But building a national brand takes time. Currently, ASP is focusing its efforts on creating public service announcements to be broadcast on radio stations across the country and on creating billboard advertisements to help familiarize parents and students with the symbol.

It remains to be seen whether most school board associations will jump at the idea, but early indications are that many are at least warming up to it.

The Oregon School Boards Association (OSBA), for example, has given the go-ahead for the state’s 1,263 schools to begin displaying the logo. Though it’s left to the discretion of schools whether they will participate in the program, OSBA Executive Director Chris Dudley said a number of them already have stamped the ASP logo on letterheads and office stationery and have begun hanging posters in the hallways.

While the program probably won’t eradicate the budget problems schools now face in Oregon–where educators last year agreed to work 10 days without pay so students could stay in school until the summer–it should at least help offset those shortfalls.

“This really is an opportunity for businesses to partner with schools in a different way than they have in the past,” Dudley said. Unlike agreements where a single company pays a flat fee to have its corporate logo displayed, ASP provides the opportunity for schools to tap a continuous revenue stream, he said.

“This is a much more comfortable [option] for schools,” he said. “We are very protective about allowing people to have access to our kids. … We’re not selling students.”

The National School Boards Association (NSBA) does not have a formal position on ASP or the existence of such corporate partnerships in schools, but Dick Anderson, the organization’s associate executive director for federation member services and outreach, did say that with state and federal funds in short supply, schools have been “hard-pressed” to find alternative means of funding for even the most fundamental of school-related programs.

“Is it the best way to operate? Probably not,” he said. But given the reality of tough budget times, the notion that at least some schools would entertain the idea isn’t out of the question–and NSBA says it’s a decision local school boards and members of the community must make based on their own individual circumstances.

See these related links:

Wise Connection

America’s Schools Program

Commercial Alert

National School Boards Association