To pay bills, schools in Europe allow ads

German schools debate whether corporate ads might lead tomanipulation.

Inside the Rntgen Realschule, a school with 350 students in Berlin, posters advertising group vacations hang in stairwells and elsewhere.

In one classroom, 15- and 16-year-old students debate having such official commercialism inside the halls of learning. "There are ads everywhere. So why not raise money for the school?" asks Max Gransee.

But Sinan Carikci worries about potential business meddling in school affairs. "It definitely has to be guarded against."

Some nod in agreement, others look puzzled. But when asked if the government provides enough money, the 30-odd students sound a unanimous "No."

The shrinking of government funds for public schools in Germany has prompted a growing number to turn to corporate sponsorship.

Coca-Cola, Columbia TriStar, L'Oral, and a handful of other companies now advertise in schools, allowing them to tap the lucrative teen market.

Germany is the third state in the European Union to try this method.

Austria eased advertising restrictions two years ago, and schools in the Netherlands have been accepting advertising for eight years.

In the United States, Channel One, a daily news program with commercials, is watched by some 8 million middle and high school students. Their schools receive audiovisual equipment for delivering viewers.

Marcus Holzmann, head of Spread Blue Media Group, one of three companies that rent poster space for the German schools and by far the one with the biggest market share, says Germany's 13 million pre-university students have a purchasing power of nearly $20 billion annually. "They've all been very enthusiastic, about the new advertising possibility," says Mr. Holzmann.

Nearly 150 of Berlin's roughly 1,250 elementary and secondary schools have turned to ad posters since legislators lifted a ban on school advertising in 1997.

Last September, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany's most economically depressed state, followed suit and now more than 50 schools display ad posters. This year Lower Saxony and the city-state of Bremen lifted their ad bans, and other states are considering doing the same.

But while there is controversy over whether the ads bring corporate money or corporate manipulation, there is widespread agreement among educators that state funding has been unable to keep up with educational needs. Berlin's education budget for 1999 was cut to $2.6 billion, down $25 million from last year.

Marlies Meinicke-Dietrich, principal at the Rntgen school, says the government of Berlin has been experiencing a Sparwelle, or "savings wave," that has broken over the school system.

Art, music are 'luxuries'

As a blanket policy, Berlin provides districts with $55 to $60 per student for textbooks and other curriculum materials. But funding for other basics ranging from chalk to school renovations, and "luxuries" such as field trips and equipment for art, music, and theater classes is arbitrarily decided, leaving some districts with far less money than others.

"The way this building looks now is how it looked 20 years ago. There's been no internal renovation," Ms. Meinicke-Dietrich says of her school building, adding that overcrowding has forced some classes to move into the neighboring elementary school.

The lack of school funding is also harmful, she says, "because the students feel as if they are less valued."

The four posters at the Rntgen school are helping to pay for renovations that will turn one room into a cafeteria. "That's a big help," says Meinicke-Dietrich, "Because under current conditions, students have no real place to eat their lunches."

With its four posters, the 500-student Albert Schweitzer Gymnasium (an advanced high school), has raised $2,650 to supplement its budget. The money helps pay for Internet and computer software, display cases for student art, and phone bills.

"The freedom that we have to spend the money is more important than the sum itself," says principal Uwe Clauss. "This allows us to finance things that aren't allowed for in the budget."

Dangerous trend?

Not everybody is convinced, however, that this is a win-win situation for businesses and schools.

Marianne Demmar, an expert on elementary and high school education for the German Teachers Union, worries that the ads are a first step toward greater business influence on education and school privatization.

"One of the dangers is that this direction is completely different [from state-supported schools]," she says, hinting that business "wants to have an influence."

Principals Meinicke-Dietrich and Clauss say the posters, under present conditions that limit them to certain school areas and forbid "undesirable" advertising for products such as for alcohol and tobacco, are harmless.

But they do not discount the possibility - in their view the danger - that corporate influence in schools may grow, especially if the savings wave continues.

"It's not the ideal situation," says Meinicke-Dietrich. "Schools should not have to be financed by ads and sponsors. The state has to remain the main financial source."

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