Your education, brought to you by…

June 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

It wasn’t too long ago that I was in high school, munching on Pizza Hut, In-N-Out and Kentucky Fried Chicken at lunch next to the Dasani and Coca Cola vending machines while wearing a school t-shirt sporting several local business sponsors.

The mix of education and corporate sponsorship seemed to be a win-win situation—the school district got money that was directed back into education and maintenance of facilities, the students were happy with non-cafeteria food, the cafeteria workers did little to prepare the meals besides handing them out and the sponsors maintained a steady stream of product and advertisement consumers. This was back in 2004, a few years before most of us could foresee the pending economic doom that awaited us.

In the past few years what seemed a relatively controlled partnership based solely on food has evolved into an intense, targeted marketing venture during a time when schools are hurting for money. In San Diego, Rancho Bernardo calculus instructor Tom Farber started selling ads on his exams at $10-30 a pop. The reason? Copies for tests would cost more than $500 per year, and his budget was only $316. The rest of the money would have to come from somewhere.

For a long and unfortunate time that money has come, willfully or grudgingly, out of teacher pocketbooks. California instructors spend an average of $430 a year out of pocket to support their students. Christine Van Ruiter, an East Oakland instructor at the E.C. Reems Academy of Tech and Art, spends more than $2,000 per year of her own money to provide school supplies to her students. It’s safe to say that nobody thinks this practice should ever come to pass, but dedicated teachers like Van Ruiter don’t see sacrificing student education as an option.

It doesn’t look like Bay Area instructors will be catching a break from the state or federal government anytime soon. California’s first application for the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top funding failed to succeed, and it doesn’t look like the state will fare any better in the second round. Furthermore, instructors in the area are struggling for their own survival; the teacher union-school district crisis that is unfolding in Oakland is just one boldfaced example.

So what we have is a difficult situation: school districts are losing money, teachers can’t afford to put their own savings into student education and the state missed its chance at increased education funding. What’s a school district to do?

Some districts have come up with some pretty catchy solutions.

Currently faced with a $2.4 million budget deficit, the Martinez Unified School District is considering giving away naming rights to school buildings and even academic programs, according to Assistant Superintendent Rick Rubino. The district and residents of Martinez will be discussing the types of organizations that will be able to advertise with the schools. The president of the Martinez school board says that she “would not dream of naming a building after a soft drink,” but the frontrunner looks to be major oil refinery Shell.

On the other side of the Bay, the Belmont-Redwood Shores Elementary School District named one of its schools after the Ralston Purina dog food company. (It appears Ralston Middle School’s mascot is still a ram and not a dog.)

Schools are obviously in a tough place right now, but some people think corporate sponsorship is a slippery solution.

Todd DeMitchell, chairman of the education department at the University of New Hampshire, says, “Students become a market in that situation, and they become captive to it if the naming becomes part and parcel of the building, if they see it 6½ hours a day. Kids should be viewed as students and not consumers.”

Boston non-profit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) is just one of the organizations against such moves by the California school districts. CCFC Associate Director Josh Golin asks, “Does the [Martina Unified School District] really want to tie itself to Shell’s brand? Does the school want to be promoting what is certainly not an uncontroversial company? The thing for schools and educators to consider is that they think it’s free money, and it’s not. It comes at a real cost that undermines education and students’ well-being, and it’s antithetical to the purpose of education.”

As it stands, Shell is likely to win the support of the Martinez School District. As the city’s number one employer, you can safely consider this a company town.

Blogging live from the U.C. Berkeley protest

March 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

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1:50 pm: (51st & TELEGRAPH) This is where the protest journey ends for me. As I continue up 51st, I can hear the crowd chanting its way down Telegraph Avenue, this time, “Whose streets? Our streets!” « Read the rest of this entry »

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