In a trend that’s sweeping the country, public school districts are selling commercial advertising space on school property as a way to compensate for funds lost to state budget cuts. It’s a measure academics and researchers say can have a deliberate, negative influence on Latino students without earning significant revenue.
The Humble Independent School District in Houston has sold the naming rights to every part of their football stadium, and their buses already carry ads for the Houston Astros and many other companies. In Colorado’s Jefferson County, school report cards contain both semester grades and corporate ad space. And in a move that proves commercial ads aren’t confined to school athletic fields, public schools in Maryland and Arizona are hosting banner ad space on their school websites.
Public schools see this as an opportunity to raise funds after the recent budget crisis, but it comes at a price. A study released this month by consumer advocacy group Public Citizen suggests that an increasingly commercialized public education generates low revenues and exposes students to unhealthy fast foods and creates distraction to instructional values. Furthermore, Public Citizen examined 25 of the largest school districts across the country and found that the revenue generated in the three largest districts in the country – Houston, Dallas and Cypress-Fairbanks in Texas – made up less than 1 percent of their overall budgets.
So how are cities with majority-Latino districts weighing the consequences of in-school advertising against the allure of much-needed dollars?
Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas – where the Hispanic student population is 68.5 percent within its 112 schools – bans commercial advertising within its district.
“We dabbled in advertising on buses 20 years ago and it was a failure because the revenue that it did bring in was minuscule compared to the budget and needs of the school district,” said Pascual Gonzalez, spokesman for the Northside Independent School District. “Philosophically, we’re interested in looking at alternative revenue streams because of the state’s unwillingness to adequately fund public schools, but when we look at the big picture, 200,000 dollars doesn’t do anything to make up for the four billion dollars in public education funding that was cut last year.”
Despite the district’s stance on advertising, Gonzalez says that the district “constantly” receives inquiries from different vendors regarding the possibility of advertising on its buses, in its athletic stadiums and in the pages of its newspaper.
David Garcia, an associate professor in the College of Education at Arizona State University, says schools often don’t think about the consequences.
“You’re talking budget cuts of multi-million dollars to the Latino community and trying to make up for it with contracts that are worth a few hundred thousand at the most. It’s not worth it in terms of bombarding a captive audience of young consumers,” says Garcia, who has studied the effects of advertising in public schools extensively.
Garcia says that that the cost of in-school advertising goes beyond negligible fiscal benefits.
“Advertisements work by affecting people’s psychology and companies spend considerable time and money trying to create images and slogans that will change how a young kid thinks about their product,” says Garcia. “From an advertiser perspective, schools are the perfect place to fix a child’s attitudes towards their product and how it can enhance their lifestyle. It’s not innocent and it’s not accidental – it’s very deliberate and damaging.”
Richard Valencia, a professor of education at the University of Texas-Austin, agrees. “One thing I fear is that through subliminal and overt advertising, students may be persuaded to buy products that are not good for their health.”
Under the leadership of Superintendent Alberto Carlvaho, Miami-Dade district schools currently allow commercial advertising in its schools. The district has allowed in-school advertising since 2008, and nearly 20% of its 340 schools now have some type of advertising on its grounds. However, the Miami-Dade school board has taken specific measures – including the prohibition of advertisements that don’t comply with its general audience and wellness standards – to ward off the effects of negative advertising on its students.
“All advertising for food must comply with our wellness policy, and for the most part, we have local business like hardware stores sponsoring small banners in our common areas,” says Dr. Marcos M. Moran, the assistant superintendent under the district school of operations. “And by school policy we’re not allowed to have ads in classroom instruction areas or on school buses, all measures meant to ensure that we don’t create an allegiance to a type of soft drink or anything damaging that would pose a threat to a child’s education.”
Moran said that the funds generated through commercial advertising are allocated towards “extras” like activities, athletics and school field trips.
“In most areas, our principals have tight budgets and this has been a way for them to generate funds” says Moran. “These dollars are not an essential part of our budget.”
Even so, Garcia warns that Latino parents should take care to realize the full consequences of in-school advertising on their children, with particular attention to fast-food ads.
“Advertising is so much more deliberate and intentional than people realize,” says Garcia. “And with a major health concern in the Latino community being the over-consumption of sugar and fat, I would find it objectionable for any school to promote a product that accelerates that.”