The case for appropriate corporate support of public education

12/18/2013  |  Mickey Freeman, MBA

School administrators, parents and policymakers are looking for alternative solutions to increase vital funding to critical school programs. The current deep financial need follows years of unprecedented budget cuts — 34 states appropriated less funding per student in 2013 than in 2008, when the economic downturn began. It’s a crisis that has forced many districts to ask parents to pick up more of the cost of their children’s educations.

A ‘Fee’ Education?

The “Wall Street Journal” highlighted the growing trend of fee-based public education in a Sept. 8, 2013 article stating, “Schools are charging parents for programs and items that have traditionally come standard — including fees for course supplies, school-run extracurricular activities, transportation and even basic registration fees.”

A September 2013 nationwide survey conducted by Education Funding Partners (EFP) confirms that three quarters of Americans with children in public schools are paying additional fees, as follows:

  • Classroom supplies: 72 percent
  • PTA support: 62 percent
  • Participation in band, drama productions or clubs: 62 percent
  • Sports fees: 55 percent
  • Additional classes, such as art and music: 45 percent

The fees are costly, with 53 percent of families paying between $100 and $400 in additional fees per child, and 23 percent spending $400 or more on each child. It’s not a surprise that 52 percent of families say the fees impact their budgets.

While 61 percent say they are resigned to writing checks for supplies, activities, sports and art, 39 percent believe the additional fees are unfair. Parents in Ann Arbor, Michigan, took their concerns to court, according to the Journal article. Ultimately, the district dropped the fees.

Turning to parents to help bridge the school-funding gap is not a viable, long-term solution to shore up public education, especially with the additional burden of “voluntary” fund-raising program contributions and student participation. Many administrators are looking beyond traditional sources of funding to maintain programs and enrich their learning environments.

School districts are considering a new vision for corporate partnerships to generate much-needed revenue. Initially, sponsorship concepts caused concern to a vocal minority, who dismissed it as an “ads in schools” program that is not in the interest of the students and generates limited revenue. However, new models allow responsible brands to support education without encroaching on classrooms and curricula and with the majority of revenue proceeds going to schools. This concept allows companies to “do the right thing,” invest in their future workforce and ultimately shore up U.S. economic security in the coming decades.

It’s time to recognize the reality of our ongoing education funding crisis and welcome carefully selected, credible Fortune 500 companies and their marketing dollars into public schools to create meaningful, enduring and lasting positive change. Corporations spend $150 billion on marketing and advertising each year, and new distribution channels and socially responsible marketing platforms are of high interest. Public education is particularly attractive, given it’s the source of America’s future workforce and economic security.

The concept of appropriate corporate support is considered critical not just for U.S. schools, but for the future of education worldwide. In fact, a new framework developed by UNESCO, UNICEF, the UN Special Envoy for Global Education and the UN Global Compact (GC), “The Smartest Investment: A Framework for Business Engagement in Education” outlines how businesses can play a transformational role in education. The program launched in September 2013.

How it Works

School districts are finding sustainable sources of revenue by connecting with the strategic marketing resources of Fortune 500 companies. By joining EFP’s unique, national scope, high value network, participating larger districts can benefit from these partnerships and gain new sources of revenue so that they may sustain existing programs, invest in new enrichment initiatives and provide a quality education to students.

EFP only works with educationally appropriate brands with positive messages suited for the school setting. It’s a great example of how corporate social responsibility efforts can support educational needs to advance student achievement. In every corporate partnership, districts receive guidance throughout the evaluation process, to ensure an appropriate fit based on school culture and educational objectives. In all partnerships, school district administrators maintain final control over every corporate partner as well as program content and messaging.

Picture high-tech computer labs sponsored by a leading computer manufacturer, music education sponsored by a Silicon Valley leader and healthy, active lifestyle programs funded by an insurance company. The model provides companies an opportunity to support corporate marketing objectives and current customers while building affinity with students—“next generation of consumers” and future workforce. The programs also improve brand perception with parents and teachers because companies are supporting public education at its time of greatest financial need.

Large districts may use corporate dollars to save field trips, support the arts or continue a successful dropout prevention program. They may buy athletic uniforms, band instruments or science lab equipment. Money from online ads may be used to enhance the district website. In San Juan (Calif.) Unified, funds will be used to operate five academies, including the culinary academy to pay for daily trips to the grocery store.

For districts, it introduces new funding sources while offering district control over which brands can participate and how dollars are re-invested in educational programs.

Districts are developing new revenue streams through corporate marketing partnerships such as:

  • A health and wellness program focused on district-wide flu prevention, supported by a major pharmacy chain
  • A back-to-school supplies program that digitizes and organizes all classroom supply lists district-wide, and provides them online in an easy-to-use format, sponsored by a major retailer
  • A school supplies savings program that provides coupon discounts to families and teachers, funded by a major office supplies retailer

Highly respected, well-known brands support this innovative approach. They range from the world’s largest retailer to popular discount stores, major office supply retailers and large pharmacy chains.

It’s a critical time in American education — the public can no longer afford the full cost of a public education — and a strategic, well-orchestrated and innovative approach is required to support public education. Allowing a handful of chosen brands into public schools can insure a better future for our students and sustain our economy in the years to come.

Mickey Freeman is president and CEO of Education Funding Partners (EFP), based in Golden, Colo. EFP puts the power of Fortune 500 marketing resources to work for public education by linking carefully selected brands and forward-thinking school districts to build successful partnerships. Through a national school district network built by EFP, brands invest in the K-12 community by preserving educational and enrichment programs. For more information, visit Freeman holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
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