Charlotte considers letting businesses pay to name schoolrooms

The proposal raises concern about the further commercialization of schools.

Imagine watching high school hoops in a place called the Midway Airlines Gym or pounding out a freshman English paper in the Novell Computer Lab.

In Charlotte, N.C., it could become a reality.

At a time when many schools across the country are agreeing to sell only one type of soda or put ads on school billboards, Charlotte is going a step further: The district is a school-board vote away from becoming the first city to emblazon corporate logos on new school gyms and libraries - once the namesakes of fallen soldiers and local activists.

The issue is a contentious one - a number of other districts from Wisconsin to Washington State have even chosen to cancel commercial contracts recently. Yet many residents here say they aren't bothered by the proposed corporate partnerships. Indeed, faced with lackluster SAT scores and shrinking school budgets, many in the Queen City say they're simply glad for the help.

"As long as it's done right, I don't mind it," says Charlotte school board member Molly Griffin. "In fact, as an adult, I appreciate knowing which corporations and businesses are getting involved with the local schools."

That's not to say there isn't controversy over the proposal - in Charlotte and nationwide. Critics question the ethics of allowing advertisers access to what is perhaps America's most impressionable captive audience. They point to facts about kids and shopping: The "nag factor" - kids nagging their parents for goodies - helped lead parents to spend $50 billion in 1985, rising to $188 billion today. Moreover, students themselves also have more cash, spending three times as much as they did in 1992.

"It's a real slippery slope when it comes to commercialism in education," says Andrew Hagelshaw, a spokesman for the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education in Oakland, Calif. "Maybe it's OK to call it the Coke Library, but then what's wrong with more advertising in the hallways? When you go this far, the question becomes:Where are you going to draw the line?"

Proposing a John Deere Auto Shop may be new, but Charlotte and North Carolina have been making deals with businesses for nearly a decade. Many of those corporations have been instrumental in turning Charlotte from a struggling textile town to one of America's great banking centers. Students at downtown Metro High School can't miss the city's revitalized, logo-tagged skyline. And elsewhere around town, school partnerships with textile firms and auto mechanic shops are already widespread, often including deals for inexpensive or free merchandise.

Locals will have a chance to speak out on the issue before the school board has its vote in late November. But many residents already seem sanguine about the idea.

Harding University High School student John Robinson shrugs at the thought of corporate logos on campus.

"It wouldn't bother me in the least, and I doubt it would bother anyone else here, either," says the aspiring auto mechanic.

At the sun-dappled downtown Charlotte Plaza, adults largely support it, as well. "Everybody is always wanting our tax money, so I don't mind if corporations get a little recognition for helping the schools out," says one computer worker.

Doug Buda, however, says he understands both sides of the debate."Sure, everywhere you look around, there's brands and logos," he says, looking around from his lunchtime perch on the plaza's marble embankment.

But Mr. Buda, who works for the advertising department at First Union Bank, also is wary of opening the door to advertising in schools. "It feels like one day, instead of countries, we'll all live in corporations," he says. "And that's part of why I think it's important that we keep our schools off-limits to advertising as long as we possibly can."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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