As school budgets stretch to meet ever-increasing demands, more administrators are exploring web-based sponsorships, advertising, and other alternative funding sources to pay for school communications.
While I clearly understand the financial crunch driving this trend, I’m deeply concerned that we’re sacrificing too much for too little.
In the story that appears on page 12 of this issue, for example, Rhode Island’s East Greenwich Public Schools announced that it has cut a deal with a technology firm to upgrade its web site.
The cost? The district must allow local businesses to advertise on its site. If parents shop online using the links provided, the district may get a small percentage–reportedly 5 percent–of the proceeds as well.
The good news is that students (and teachers, for that matter) won’t have access to the shopping links while using school computers. The bad news is the district risks trivializing and diminishing its message to parents by making it compete with corporate logos and sales messages.
What’s going to win? The district’s urgent message regarding its proposed budget and funding needs, or a slick corporate logo or sponsored links to a local antique store, nail salon, real estate company, or therapeutic massage service?
Cutting through the clutter and getting parents’ attention is tough enough in today’s over-communicated world. By polluting school web sites and other district-owned communications channels with advertising, we’re not only adding to the clutter, we’re competing with ourselves.
There are a number of attractive, easy-to-use, and reasonably priced web site templates and solutions available to schools that don’t require selling pristine communications space to corporate advertisers.
SchoolSpan and SchoolWires are just two that leap quickly to mind, and the up-front costs for web site designs that can be tailored for your school or district are much lower than most people realize.
While I’m not familiar with the financial details of East Greenwich’s deal with EdTech Networks Inc., as a former advertising executive, I can tell you that educators tend to vastly underestimate the market value of their web sites and other assets.
Schools have incredible access to key groups desired by many marketers, especially tweens (children ages 9-12), teens, women, and “soccer moms.” This doesn’t mean dads are left out of the picture, but all the research I’ve seen shows that women spend most of the money and make most of the purchasing decisions in any given household.
Access and brand recognition are what marketers are after, and we shouldn’t sell that cheaply. Nor should we ignore the message we send when we commercialize the most powerful communications tool currently available worldwide.
Better or more robust web site design is often the selling point for school leaders, but the result can end up being more negative than positive if the prime spaces are given to corporate sponsors rather than the school or district.
Spiffy school web sites lose effectiveness when linked to rebate and fund- raising programs, however well intentioned. While I like that the ads on East Greenwich’s web site won’t be accessible via school computers, as a parent of a school-aged child, I would personally find the encouragement to shop both annoying and disheartening.
Clearly, commercialism in schools is nearly as old as public education itself in our democracy. It’s easy to find old wooden rulers, slide rules, and other school tools imprinted with the names of book publishing companies and other vendors at second-hand stores and antique malls.
Anyone who has ever negotiated a vending machine contract, hawked ads for yearbooks, posted nutrition messages sponsored by food companies, or paid for a new football scoreboard via athletic team sponsorships has participated in one of education’s dirty little secrets.
That doesn’t make it right. As a passionate believer in the sanctity of the schoolhouse, I worry when we auction off access to kids–and their families–to the highest bidder.
Nora Carr is chief communications officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications.