Legal Brief

Advertising on School Property
By MICHELE V. JONES/School Administrator, March 2020

IS IT TIME to make the hucksters pay for playing in our schools?

In every state nationwide, public school administrators are searching for alternative revenue sources as traditional funding falls short of need. Service and product vendors line up at the school gates, anxious for an opportunity to give schools a much-needed cash infusion.

Some states had laws making schools off limits to advertisers. That changed in the mid-1980s when Whittle Communications’ Channel One daily news broadcast was introduced in high school classrooms. Channel One mixed public service announcements and commercial messages targeting teens. Parents were outraged, and many more states passed legislation prohibiting blatant commercialism in classrooms.

Classroom Ads
Marketing commercial products in K-12 classrooms is not a new idea. Ivory Soap gave free samples to students in the 1920s, and local banks tried rehabilitating their image during the Depression by partnering with schools. Today, schools from New Jersey to Minnesota have raised millions of dollars for education by partnering with corporations such as McDonald’s and Apple. One school district in the Southwest generates more than $150,000 a month in revenue just by branding its bus fleet.

Education leaders who try to capitalize on advertisement revenue, however, are criticized as “gold diggers” who want to exploit students for profit. What critics don’t understand is that whether administrators take advertisement dollars or not, corporations are using school districts to actively market to students in classrooms.

One example is Google. In 2012, Google had less than a 1 percent share of the K-12 market. By 2015, Google commanded a 53 percent market share, pushing out rivals like Microsoft simply by offering a free product to resource-starved teachers. Google Apps for Education got the gold star from educators for creating a free tool for instruction. Now more than 70 million students and teachers worldwide use Google, which in turn sells thousands of Chromebooks a day. Google G-Suite for Education is a household name thanks to classroom promotion.

Students are exposed regularly to advertisements at school, from branded textbooks to vending machines, so why not turn this into revenue? Of course, school administrators should be careful when partnering with vendors in exchange for funds because the money always is tied to conditions.

A Proper Balance
Whether the commercial messaging is a passive advertisement on a school bus or an active video ad at the start of an online lesson, administrators must strike the right balance between district mission and vendor message. Advertisements shouldn’t be linked to politics, firearms, tobacco or alcohol, but who decides beyond that what’s an appropriate message?

If a company sponsors the district’s sports teams, will the schools be required to use only products manufactured or marketed by that vendor? Will that violate the school district’s procurement policy? If the vendor provides equipment at no charge to the administration, will the gift violate the district’s ethics policy?

Administrators should monitor data privacy when partnering with a commercial vendor. Schools may partner with cloud-based companies, such as Facebook, to communicate with the community, but is it proper for a company to data mine information to create advertisements tailored to the district’s needs?

Data privacy laws require schools to safeguard personally identifiable information about students and staff, so protecting these data ought to be fully addressed. Misuse of data could cost the district far more money than the return.

Capitalize Cautiously
State law will dictate whether your district can capitalize on advertisements in the classroom. Commercial arrangements can be a quick fix to a budget gap, so consider advocating for a legislative change if commercialism in classrooms is prohibited in your state.

Administrators considering a partnership with a vendor as a revenue source should proceed cautiously and seek advice of counsel before finalizing any deal.

MICHELE JONES is general counsel of the Capital Region BOCES in Albany, N.Y.