Beginning this fall, when parents of students in Rhode Island’s East Greenwich Public Schools surf the district’s web site in search of information about their children’s education, they’ll likely bump into something else: corporate advertising.

It’s a model that has supported the creation and distribution of school yearbooks for years–and now it’s coming to the web.

Dubbed EdNets, the program is the brainchild of a Massachusetts-based technology firm called EdTech Networks Inc. Instead of charging districts a fee up front to design, upgrade, and expand the capabilities of their school web sites, the company draws its revenue from ads placed on various web pages operated by the school system.

Superintendent Charlie Meyers bills the unconventional and somewhat controversial idea–approved by the local school board earlier this month–as a low-cost way to upgrade and expand his district’s family of school-related web sites. Unlike some technology design firms that charge thousands of dollars to build, design, and upgrade school web sites, he says, EdNets has no up-front costs.

By working with a professional design company to upgrade and expand the school district’s web presence, Meyers said, the goal is to encourage parents to become active participants in their children’s education.

“The piece of the deal that was most attractive for us was having an opportunity to have our web site looking current and professional,” he said. As part of the deal, EdNets reportedly sent a team of designers and technology consultants into the district to meet with administrators and build a site customized to the needs of its constituents.

Though Rhode Island, like many states, has laws prohibiting school systems from using their buildings or other school property as a vehicle for marketing to children, Meyers said, the EdNets program isn’t about hawking products to students; it’s about reaching out to members of the local community.

The way the EdNets program is set up, ads will be displayed only on computers accessing school district web sites from outside the school system, Meyers said. Anyone–teachers and students included–who accesses the district’s web site using its internal network would not be able to see the ads. Another feature also reportedly would enable users accessing the district’s web site from home to block the ads, if they so choose.

In all cases, Meyers said, the ads will be targeted to a specific audience–meaning if an outside user, such as a parent, visits the district’s school lunch page, he or she might see an ad placed by a local supermarket, for example. If a user visits a page about school athletics, that person might see an ad for a local retailer, such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, and so on.

As an added benefit, the school district also will participate in a special rebate program. That program, which requires visitors to register their credit card and other information on the school district’s web site, will pay a 5-percent commission to the district for every sale completed by a registered member via an EdNets ad.

Meyers said he has no idea how much money, if any, the district likely will see as a result of the rebate program. What money the district does make will be used to establish an endowment fund to support professional development, student scholarships, grants, and a variety of other activities.

Tight budgets and limited resources aside, there are those who say advertising, in any form, has no place in schools, or on school web sites–period.

Gary Ruskin, director of Washington, D.C.-based Commercial Alert, a nonprofit group opposed to corporate advertising in schools, said such a program “undermines the integrity of the school.”

No matter the product, Ruskin says advertisements can be a distraction to students and a detriment to the school district’s standing as a government institution that exists for the public interest.

School leaders should be careful, said Ruskin. Though the allure of commissions earned through these programs can be attractive, especially in tough budget times, the costs could be higher than anticipated.

Some stakeholders, he said, might be turned off, or even offended, by the appearance of advertising on school web sites. If, by chance, the ads push stakeholders away, they also might discourage them from voting in favor of supportive tax measures, bonds, and other critical spending initiatives. In that case, the program could end up costing the school system more money than the ads are bringing in.

“Some things just shouldn’t be for sale, and that includes schools,” said Ruskin. “What kind of messages does something like this send to the kids?”

Richard Trembowicz, chief executive officer of EdNets, doesn’t see the services offered by his company as advertising, at least not in the traditional sense.

“It’s a rebate model, not an advertising model,” he said.

Trembowicz said the EdNets program is “very selective” in the type of companies it allows to participate. Most of the companies are local merchants and chain stories peddling consumer goods and services aimed at parents. There also are prohibitions on potentially objectionable ads, such as those for alcohol, tobacco products, and gambling, he said.

Meyers said he realizes the program is unconventional, but he doesn’t think it crosses any moral or ethical lines. Before approving the project, he said, district officials ran the idea by the local parent association, and they even conferred with state officials to clear up any potential legal problems stemming from certain child-commercialization laws.

“We really haven’t seen very much opposition at all,” said Meyers. Most of stakeholders’ concerns have centered not on the ads appearing on the district’s web site, but on the credit-card and personal information obtained through the rebate program. Trembowicz said his company has policies in place to protect members’ identities.

Because EdNets designs the system and provides the district with templates, the program potentially could save the district additional money on IT costs simply by enabling teachers–and other faculty members, such as coaches–to enter information into the system themselves, Meyers said.

“Now the soccer coach can make the changes, put them in the template, and do it [himself],” explained Meyers. “We don’t need to go through three or four people” to update the district’s web site.

EdNets currently has contracts with seven school systems and is in discussions with as many as 70 others nationwide, Trembowicz said. “We’re … seeing a lot of interest from schools in this program,” he added.

East Greenwich says it plans to launch its new design as early as next week.

Links:

East Greenwich Public Schools
http://www.egsd.net

EdNets.com (Ed Tech Networks Inc.)
http://www.ednets.com

Commercial Alert
http://www.commercialalert.org