|South Florida Sun - Sentinel
Dec 2, 2001
Commercializing Our Schools: Who's On First?
RALPH DE LA CRUZ COMMENTARY
I worry about putting this issue in the hands of already overwhelmed principals and vice principals. I feel the same about principals negotiating contracts as I do about pilots enforcing security on planes: Do one thing and do it right. [Merrie Meyers-Kershaw] says her office offers support, guidance and training. Nevertheless, I'm not sure I want my kid's principal to be a corporate wheeler-dealer. Or a corporate wheeler-dealer to be my kid's principal.
On Dec. 11, the Broward School Board will consider whether to allow companies to place their names on school "components" such as gyms, labs and athletic fields in return for some much-needed cash.
As I write, the state Legislature is cutting about $400 million from public schools. So, I can understand the value of something like a Pfizer Science Lab, an Encarta Library or Fubu Stadium.
But it doesn't take much imagination to see how this could get really ugly: Lunch at the Burger King Cafeteria followed by a pit stop at the Flush-N-Clean Bathroom. Classes in the West Wing east wing.
Relax, says Merrie Meyers-Kershaw, director of the district's partnership program. The district is just trying to set some guidelines. Guidelines that are currently missing.
"The policy, as it's now written, doesn't keep [over- commercialization] from happening," she says. "We need some governance, some guidance."
"A school is a place for learning. It's not the mall," she adds.
The mall-ing of schools hasn't happened here, she asserts, because there are sufficient checks and balances. For example, the district has an advertising committee made up of parent leaders and district personnel. It was started after a school, located near a highway, allowed a company to put up a beverage billboard on its property. A board member saw it, figured it wasn't such a good idea, and wanted a group to provide guidance.
Incidentally, the district now prohibits billboards on school grounds. Sort of. It was an unofficial agreement developed at a board retreat.
Which is one of the unsettling things about this concept of commercializing schools. It's subject to so many whims and interpretations. You get the feeling everybody wants the money but nobody really wants the responsibility. Florida law permits local districts to set their own policies. The Broward board, in turn, allows individual schools to set their own agreements. The only real parameters are no advertising of alcohol or tobacco.
In all, there are about 2,000 partnerships in Broward. Some wonderful, some just OK.
But no matter how creative, unobtrusive or valuable, all are about finding a way to get a brand name out there, and connecting with young consumers.
I should point out that one of the most pervasive programs in the country is Newspapers in Education, in which papers are distributed to classes so kids can discuss current events.
You see, we're all looking for that young consumer.
Obviously, not all these partnerships are bad. My concerns are about how and how much.
I worry about putting this issue in the hands of already overwhelmed principals and vice principals. I feel the same about principals negotiating contracts as I do about pilots enforcing security on planes: Do one thing and do it right. Meyers-Kershaw says her office offers support, guidance and training. Nevertheless, I'm not sure I want my kid's principal to be a corporate wheeler-dealer. Or a corporate wheeler-dealer to be my kid's principal.
I worry about funding inequalities between schools.
I worry that, although current district management seems to be doing a fairly good job at this, there might come a day when needs will be greater, corporations will be more predatory, and school managers less disciplined.
I worry that, at the core, there is a most troubling question here: Are corporate subsidies needed because the public is no longer willing to pay for public education?
A lot to consider.
All I know is that if the Dec. 11 meeting is simply about creating more openings for businesses to enter our schools, I've got a problem with that.
If it's about maintaining a steady hand and tight control, about developing a cohesive district-wide policy
Ralph De La Cruz's column appears Thursdays and Sundays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4727.
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