A decade or so ago, corporate marketing at public schools reached a peak. Slick lunch menus featured full-color illustrations of M&Ms — delivering messages about good nutrition — and schools held Coca-Cola rallies. Students worked on donated computers, the screens rimmed by advertising. School fliers urged parents to "Pick the products that earn cash" for their schools by buying certain cereals.
The past 10 years have produced a backlash to such school-based marketing, a change we applaud. Students should not be used as a captive audience for corporate advertising. But today, L.A.'s schools have their backs to the wall financially, so we are reluctantly supporting a proposal by the Los Angeles Unified School District to allow corporate sponsorship of athletic fields and programs that might otherwise have to be cut, as long as the district sticks to guidelines that would avoid ads for unhealthful products. The district has bent over backward to design a plan that keeps advertising within boundaries, despite the yawning gap between its needs and its revenue.
The proposal, scheduled for a vote at Tuesday's school board meeting, would allow school personnel to seek sponsorship contracts for certain programs that are now paid for out of the general budget, such as team sports, food services, arts, Academic Decathlon and parent outreach. Corporate sponsors would gain the right to emblazon their logos in the cafeteria, on the athletic field or on printed materials that promote the sponsored programs, but they would not be allowed to advertise. Logos associated with junk foods or other products seen as inappropriate would not be allowed, even if, say, McDonald's wanted to advertise salad and milk instead of fries and a shake. So there would be no Coca-Cola logos, but there could be one for Dasani, which is bottled by Coca-Cola.
But those sorts of decisions can be complicated. There are sit-down restaurants known for their heaping plates of refined carbohydrates and saturated fats. Are they more entitled to sign a sponsorship deal than Burger King? The proposal prudently calls for a series of internal reviews before any deal is signed, which should offer adequate protection against embarrassing sponsorship gaffes.
The district should end sponsorships as soon as its budget situation allows. A school system that was adequately funded should be expected to protect its students from marketing, not to encourage it. But right now, "adequately funded" is not a term that describes L.A.'s schools. Students need nutritious food, engaging physical exercise and challenging extracurricular activities more than they need to be shielded from a handful of corporate logos.