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Ad Sales by Prince William, Virginia, School Web Sites Fuel Debate Over Commerce and Education

A bank ad appears on the Web Site of Prince William County's Battlefield HIgh School.
A bank ad appears on the Web Site of Prince William County's Battlefield HIgh School.

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By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009

On Battlefield High School's Web site, students can find homework assignments, check sports schedules and even track their finances via a link on the home page -- if they have an account with BB&T. The bank's click-through logo is part of an Internet advertising deal, considered a first for Washington area public schools, that is helping Prince William County educators find private sources of revenue when public money is tight.

Businesses have long promoted themselves by sponsoring campus activities (think of high school baseball teams brought to you by the local hardware store). But some parents and analysts say there are questions about what school-related advertising is appropriate and what is not.

In suburban San Diego, a teacher raised eyebrows in November when he started selling ad space on exams after his supply budget was cut by a third. Last year, Montgomery County schools installed a school bus radio program that forced student passengers to listen to commercial jingles; it was halted after parents protested. Fairfax County schools decided in November to allow buildings and facilities to be named after corporate sponsors, although they have yet to receive an offer.

Prince William's Web ads started in October and have brought in more than $50,000 from sponsors, including a car dealership, power companies and defense contractor Lockheed Martin.

"We're just looking for any way in these economic times to maximize people's donations," said Sharon Henry, executive director of the Prince William County Public Schools Education Foundation, who started the project. "It opens up a whole new opportunity for them to support schools by giving back."

Henry is hoping for at least $25,000 more by the end of the school year. The ads are on 17 school Web sites, and she is hoping to get them up on all 87. The 73,900-student school system, the second-largest in Virginia, is using the money to offset the costs of a $120,000 Web-hosting program that officials said makes it far easier for teachers to post homework and communicate with parents. Each school used to run its own site, officials said, which led to an uneven experience and a burden for schools that didn't always have tech-savvy employees.

The Alexandria School Board next month will consider allowing ads on school Web sites. But officials at other area school systems surveyed said they haven't discussed them.

"To me, it kind of cheapens the education mission, and it takes a captive audience and shoves advertising down their throats," said Manassas Park Superintendent Thomas DeBolt.

Some parents applauded the effort to raise money as the fast-growing Prince William schools prepare for what officials call their first annual reduction in spending.

"With the majority of Web sites, when you go onto them, you see advertising anyway," said Michelle Cannon, president of the Battlefield High School Parent-Teacher Organization. "I'm familiar with these companies, because they are either in our neighborhood or they sponsor the different events at the school."

Others are less comfortable with the practice.

"If it's strictly visual, it's one thing," said Lynn Heller, who has children at Brentsville and Osbourn Park high schools. "If you can click through, it's a little different."

A click on an advertiser's logo brings up a warning that the visitor is leaving the school Web site as the browser is redirected toward a company's site. For example, clicking on the logo of Koons of Manassas, displayed along the left side of many Prince William high school sites, yielded Koons's main site, which yesterday boasted 2.9 percent financing available on 2009 Honda Civics.

Advertisers said they want to support schools -- and if it helps business, so much the better.

"As a car dealership, we are intimately involved in the community," said David Hish, vice president and director of information technology at Koons and president of the Prince William Education Foundation. "Our customers are local to us, and young people, as they get into high school, start having transportation needs, as well as parents of the children."

Hish called it an "added benefit" rather than an advertisement. He said that a bigger display ad on the site "could potentially offend parents."

One education expert said that even small ads can be problematic because they can be read as a tacit endorsement of the advertiser by the school. For advertisers, "by dint of constant repetition and close association with legitimated 'good' things, in this case schools, you unite your self-interested goals with the perceived public interest," said Alex Molnar, director of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University and author of a book on commercialism in schools. "And that's a lie."

Prince William Superintendent Steven L. Walts said in a statement that he was "proud to be on the cutting edge of exploring new and innovative ways to fund initiatives without additional tax revenues."


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