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Giving can be its own reward

MY VIEW • Schools should have clear policy on donors' ads, logos

Will Portland Public Schools one day have a Jiffy Lube High, a Hostess Elementary School and an Exxon Middle School?

This is no joking matter. If the present trend continues, the cash-strapped public schools might one day sell school names to the highest corporate bidders.

The Portland Public Schools board isn't there yet, but it is at the top of the proverbial slippery slope.

Board members even got an editorial nudge recently when Portland Tribune Executive Editor and sports columnist Dwight Jaynes half-jokingly wrote that he'd rename his alma mater, Cleveland High School, 'Burgerville High' in exchange for corporate cash (Logo or no, kids deserve nice gyms, Sept. 28).

But many of us are troubled by what the school board is doing now.

Based on a recent school board decision regarding a Trail Blazer 'gift' of $600,000, it's now OK for a corporation to 'donate' to the schools in exchange for the schools' plastering the Blazer logos on the floors of 10 area school gyms. The logos will be seen by tens of thousands of students - our sons and daughters - over the next 10 years.

Anyone in advertising knows that kids - with decades of consumer spending ahead of them - are prime advertising targets.

In making its decision, the school board refused to establish a policy about what companies are allowed to advertise, whether they can pitch a product, what kind of product they can pitch, for how long and where.

Those decisions have all been left for would-be donors and the unelected school bureaucracy to work out, behind closed doors.

You - parents and taxpayers- haven't been asked about whether any of this is a good idea for your children or for the educational program that your tax dollars support. There is no public oversight of any of this.

The Trail Blazer money will be used to refurbish 10 gym floors. But the next donor might get to paint bleachers with 'Just Do It!' or the backboards with 'The Coke Side of Life.'

What corporate 'partners' get for their money are so-called 'recognition opportunities.' The term is as revealing as it is crass. It is widely used in the marketing trade. The motive behind such corporate 'gifts' isn't altruism but public recognition - namely, publicity and advertising.

Corporate names, logos and product mentions are showing up everywhere in the schools - at box-top fundraisers, on the sides of glitzy beverage dispensers, on sports uniforms, on 'curriculum enhancing' freebies.

Our children, a true captive audience, pay the price. In her book 'Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture,' Boston College sociology professor Juliet B. Schor cites several studies showing that exposing children to repeated, intrusive marketing causes depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, along with other problems.

Society loses out because whole generations are taught to value consumption over creativity and productive citizenship. In short, kids are taught that fulfillment comes through possessions.

The schools, of course, are essential to this transformation. If the schools become reliant on this kind of funding, the teaching of critical thinking is doomed. Jaynes' 'Burgerville High' is symbolic of the end of education as we know it.

The Coalition for Commercial-Free Schools, a local group of parents, health workers and other concerned citizens, is urging the school board to limit marketing and ban blatant forms of commercialism from the schools. The coalition maintains that the board must steadfastly affirm that schools are for learning, not marketing.

The policy should specify that corporate donations, like the Blazers', will be acknowledged with simple, one-time recognition and perhaps an unobtrusive plaque. No more, no less.

The real reward for corporate generosity should be an educated work force and citizenry, not advertising and public relations.

Beyond that, all of us - school policymakers, parents, students, teachers, corporate leaders - would do well to review an old lesson: The virtue of giving is its own reward.

Rick Seifert is a founder of MediaThink, a media literacy organization that is a member of the Coalition for Commercial-Free Schools. His Web site is theredelectric.blogspot.com.