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Education Funding Opinion

Putting Brands to Work for Public Schools

By Mickey Freeman — November 06, 2012 4 min read
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Public education budgets have always been tight, but today we find ourselves in uncharted territory. Looking back to 2008, when the country slipped into the Great Recession, no aspect of the economy has escaped unscathed. One of the hardest-hit areas has been education, since deep losses in the housing sector sent shock waves that decimated state and local budgets and, consequently, school budgets as well. In many places, schools’ rainy-day funds have run dry.

Consider that between 2008 and 2011, nearly 300,000 U.S. education jobs were lost. Put another way, education job cuts made up 54 percent of all job losses in local government. These job reductions have directly affected core curriculum, school arts programs, physical education, special education, and support functions. The tough choices continue. Across the country, schools are eliminating educational mainstays including foreign-language and sports programs and letting go of school librarians. The impact of these cuts will be felt for generations.

This is the new reality for U.S. public education, and we find ourselves at a moment when new ideas are needed.

And, so, some districts are considering corporate partnerships to generate much-needed revenue. Admittedly, the concept is distressing to some, who fear the impact of commercialism on students and their critical thinking. Others dismiss the idea as an ads-in-schools ploy that brings in paltry sums. But new models are emerging that can generate significant revenue for education. Responsible national brands are supporting education not only to do the right thing, but also to invest in the next-generation workforce and long-term U.S. economic security.

The notion of brands in schools began decades ago. In fact, some corporations have had a hand in schools for so long that they have become part of the educational fabric. Scholastic, for instance, is centered on reading and augments literacy initiatives through school-based fundraisers that provide a revenue share back to participating schools. Others, such as Sally Foster, offer items such as gift wrap, magazines, and edibles, for fundraising efforts in which schools receive a modest revenue share. Make no mistake, these are for-profit companies that partner with schools while seeking to drive revenue, improve margins, and create shareholder value, all the while leveraging parents as an extension of their sales teams and students as their “feet on the street.”

It’s time for a new model.

It’s time to recognize the reality of our long-term education funding crisis and welcome credible Fortune 500 companies into public schools."

Today, leading corporations have an unprecedented opportunity to shape the future of their workforces and enhance the economic security of the United States through marketing sponsorships in public school districts. The confluence of market conditions and corporate community-investment programs, along with inspired marketing initiatives, has given rise to more-sophisticated programs that allow companies to invest in areas that matter to both corporate survival and the nation’s success.

Companies are directing their attention and dollars to high-impact areas, including STEM (or science, technology, engineering, and math), technology literacy, arts, health and wellness, sports, dropout prevention, and workforce readiness. For many years, these programmatic areas have depended on individual and corporate philanthropy. By stepping up, marketers inherently understand that they can “do well by doing good.”

Picture high-tech computer labs sponsored by a leading computer manufacturer, music education sponsored by a Silicon Valley brand, and healthy school lunch choices funded by a natural-foods company.

This new model provides companies an opportunity to directly invest in schools and support their current customers and future employees while improving brand perception and building affinity with students—their next generation of customers. For districts, it introduces new, sustainable funding sources without sacrificing district control over which brands can participate and how dollars are reinvested in educational programs.

My company, Education Funding Partners, facilitates the relationship between brands and school districts, so I obviously have a stake in and believe in this concept. My company was founded in 2010 to link corporate social responsibility and marketing objectives with educational needs.

It’s a critical period in American education—and a strategic, well-orchestrated, and broad approach is required to support public education at its time of greatest need. Allowing carefully chosen brands in public schools can help ensure a better future for our students and sustain our economy in the years to come.

It’s time to recognize the reality of our long-term education funding crisis and welcome credible Fortune 500 companies into public schools to create meaningful, enduring, and lasting positive change in schools.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2012 edition of Education Week as Putting Brands to Work for Public Schools

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