Without ever cracking a book, students in Bucks County's Pennsbury School District are learning a new subject this year: marketing.
Starting three weeks ago, the 16 elementary, middle, and high schools are being adorned with - some say defiled by - advertisements as large as 5 by 10 feet. By month's end, 47 should be in place. Ultimately, 218 are to appear on walls and floors, and shrink-wrapped over lockers, locker-room benches, even cafeteria tables.
In what administrators say is a first in the Philadelphia area and probably the state, the Pennsbury school board signed a contract with a national advertising agency that could boost the district's battered budget by as much as $424,000, while giving the firm's clients access to the habitat of 10,950 children, tweens, and teens.
The ads must relate to health, education, nutrition, or student safety, and may not directly endorse products. They tout, among other things, reading and outdoor activities (the U.S. Library of Congress and the Ad Council); organizational skills (Post-it Notes), and concussion awareness (Dick's Sporting Goods).
They have debuted to love-'em/hate-'em reviews from students and parents. But to district officials - who cut the budget this year by $3 million and dipped into savings for a additional $3.1 million - they are a bow to necessity.
"It's imperative we find alternate means to preserve our programs," Assistant Superintendent W. David Bowman said. "We'd prefer to generate revenues rather than cut programs or increase class size" - or raise taxes, which Pennsbury did not.
Although such commercial deals are rare in public education, the brutal economy is making them less so.
New Jersey is allowing school districts to put ads on on the outside of school buses for the first time. Regulations are being finalized, and the ads should go up next year.
Janet Miller, chief operating officer for School Media Inc., the Minneapolis-based agency that signed Pennsbury, said the deals are win-win. Schools get cash through less incendiary means than tax hikes, and "corporate leaders [get] a chance to stand up" and contribute to education, she said. "It's America helping America."
School Media has contracts for ads in nine other districts in Minnesota and California, according to Miller.
In Orange County, Fla., the schools make several hundred thousand dollars a year allowing ads on such platforms as lunch menus and the vests of sideline officials at football games, and licensing debit cards with the district's logo.
The Los Angeles School District last year approved a corporate naming-rights plan that could bring in an estimated $18 million. And this past summer, the San Juan Unified School District, also in California, approved the posting of corporate signs on middle and high school campuses, and hired an advertising firm to go out and get them.
In recent years, "there has been an enormous increase both in the amount and the sophistication" of commercial ventures in schools, said Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College in Illinois who has written extensively on ads in academe. "It's gone far beyond just saying 'Coca Cola' on the scoreboard."
Even if ads present innocuous public-service and social-issue messages, "a lot of companies see that they can make money off this," Kasser said. "Advertising works through the repetition of images and messages. The more places you can saturate, the more it gets into the brain."
Paul Kurnit, a marketing professor at Pace University in New York, was once a youth marketing executive, giving his concerns a certain gravitas.
"The school is a fallow playground for advertising brands to reach kids in an authoritative, credible environment where there's an implied endorsement [by] the authorities," he said.
Kurnit expressed doubts about "how well schools will be able to draw the line" between educational messages and in-your-face advertising. "We've got to be worried about product creep."
Not all experts agree. If the ads are "selective and thoughtful," they can be a "good thing" for children, said Lane Keller, a professor of marketing at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. "The key is to keep people well-informed about the benefits and the costs."
The Pennsbury deal did not coalesce behind the public's back. It took shape after the school board, vowing to contain costs and taxes, appointed a revenue development committee last year to come up with nontraditional money streams. Ideas were solicited from district employees and residents and reported at the board's public meetings.
The district can veto ad content and placement.
While Pennsbury jumped on the ad wagon, other districts are finding other ways to mine commerce for cash.
The Centennial system, also in Bucks, has launched a host of ventures aimed at raising $2.5 million by June 2014.
Centennial trademarked the William Tennent High School name and its panther mascot's image, and signed a licensing agreement with Modell's Sporting Goods. Board member Mark Miller, himself a marketing consultant, said Internet companies often sell apparel bearing school logos, without paying fees. With its trademark, Centennial can curb that.
This fall, licensed T-shirts went on sale at Modell's in Warminster, with athletic bags to follow. The district gets a 20 percent cut. Schools also circulate Modell's discount coupons, for a percentage of sales, and Modell's signs are in the high school stadium and gymnasium.
Want to be noticed at a one- or two-day Centennial event? Sponsoring the "Your-Name-Here Invitational" is $5,000; an "Invitational Presented by Your-Name-Here" is $3,000.
That's not all: State Farm Insurance pays Centennial $5,000 to put a sign on the high school stadium ticket booth and set up tables at games, as well as inside the school, to sell policies. A local auto dealership donated a pickup truck with accessories, worth $35,000, for the right to display advertising on it. Ford is holding vehicle test drives on school grounds; the district gets $20 for each participant. And a credit union opened inside the high school in return for helping school business classes and hiring student interns.
This year, Centennial raised taxes more than 4.6 percent and cut 28 jobs. Nonetheless, school board member Jane Schrader Lynch voted against the Modell's deal.
"I don't want to commercialize schools; some of these arrangements are doing that," she said. "The focus should be on education. To me, it's not worth the money."
In Chester County's Unionville-Chadds Ford district, board member Holly Manzone noted the public divide over how far is too far to go in monetizing the schoolhouse. The board, she said, is proceeding cautiously.
"Personally, I'm troubled by" placing ads in schools, she said. "These kids are a captive audience. . . . An ad isn't going to be valuable unless it somehow registers, and I don't want them to register with the children."
At Pennsbury's Manor Elementary School this month, a pro-reading ad featuring cartoon characters from the movie Tangled and one promoting outdoor activity over video gaming were greeted with parental enthusiasm.
Crystal Schaefer, whose daughter is a student there, said they were "positive reminders" for children. And "it's great if it [brings in] revenue for the district."
At a high school back-to-school night, Jean Sharp, mother of three, expressed reservations. Students "are bombarded with so much information as it is," she said. "To have more clutter during their every-day passing to classes may be too much."
East High senior Jon Shiota didn't like the idea. "School is an educational space," he said. "I don't think it's somewhere where they should be advertising products."
Pennsbury board member Allan Weisel was blunt about the alternative. "The less money we have, the more educational programs we have to cut, and $425,000 buys a lot of program," he said.
"We say, 'Show us another way, give us the funding some other way.' We need the money desperately."