(Reporting Back from SPT’s April Research and Policy Forum)
On April 16, 2012 Social Planning Toronto hosted a research and policy forum: “Corporate Partnerships with Schools around the World: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, featuring students from York University’s public policy stream, who have been investigating the impact of corporate partnerships as they play out here in Toronto, the GTA, Ontario, Canada and around the world.
In the spring of 2010 the Ministry of Education first announced that it would be conducting a review of its policies on Fees for Learning Materials and Activities, Fundraising and Corporate Partnerships. While the draft guidelines on fees and fundraising were circulated for public consultation and have been finalized, the draft guideline for corporate partnerships has yet to be made public, despite indication from the Ministry of Education that these would be released for consultation in fall 2011.
While York students presented their findings from their investigations of the impact of corporate partnerships on education across the globe (full report to be made publically available in the near future) this section from Andrew Deacon features some of his findings as to what is already happening in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). This report back is particularly relevant given the current budget shortfall at the TDSB. As we read through this we must ask ourselves – just how do we want our public education system to be funded and what are the implications of turning to private money to subsidize private education?
Corporate partnership is an increasingly popular practice at the Toronto District School Board. Public schools are increasingly engaged in corporate partnerships to help subsidize a shortfall in public funding. Partnerships between public education institutions and corporations are defined by a private organization donating money to a public system for something particular in exchange. Partnering with corporations has become encouraged by the Ministry of Education, promoting their commitment to private-public partnerships in place of pure public funding. In this light, a system that can attract dollars from the private sector without having to rely on provincial funding is a successful one. When vital programs are either eliminated or scaled back due to funding shortfalls from the government, an opportunity arises for a private organization or business to enter public schools and provide funding to cover the gap.
As a rule the private sector only enters into partnerships when it benefits their businesses. This proves problematic for our public education system. The integrity of the public system can be compromised when private donors become involved in the equation, as the private sector is not motivated by outcomes such as student success and equity. Rather corporations are motivated by a need to meet shareholder expectations of continued growth and profit creation.
The TDSB does its utmost to monitor all partnerships through the business development office. Unfortunately, since the TDSB has not been receiving adequate funding from the Province, it is easy to see why more emphasis would be placed on developing partnerships. There are, however, many educational considerations with regard to schools’ ability to deliver quality education to students as dependence on corporate money increases.
Corporate partnerships impact schools, neighborhoods and, most directly, children. These impacts are most visible in the form of advertising. Children are being marketed to via schools by corporations that are eager to participate in the perfectly segmented market that public education provides. Given that children are legally obliged to attend school six hours a day, five days a week and ten months a year, the stage is perfectly set for aggressive marketing to children. Research has proven that advertising influences children’s food and beverage preferences, purchase requests and short-term consumption (McGinnis et al., 2006); children’s excessive exposure to marketing messages can promote materialistic and individualistic values (Schor, 2004) and contribute to children’s diminished capability to play creatively (Linn, 2005); and excessive exposure to marketing messages can compromise critical thinking (Molnar, et al., 2011) and promote political apathy (Norris, 2011; Giroux, 2009; Boyles, 2004).
A study conducted by Juliet Schor has shown that children who are entrenched within a consumerist lifestyle are linked to higher levels of anxiety, depression and poorer health. Children are constantly being exposed to advertising within schools and dietary plans that promote unhealthy foods, which according to a study by the Ontario Medical Association has led to an epidemic of obese children. For example, McDonalds, a corporation that has taken a great deal of flak for contributing to childhood obesity, pledged to offer money to over one-hundred fifty Ontario schools to build gymnasiums and take part in their fitness program (Shaker Et Al., 2006). McDonalds was able to gain the support of the Canadian Olympic Committee for this initiative, thus furthering their seemingly legitimate program in the eyes of consumers. This allows for McDonalds to place the blame of the epidemic on lack of childhood exercise habits rather than their obesity causing foods (Shaker Et Al., 2006).
Corporations engaging in these exchanges doubly benefit as they are able to write off their donations to schools, further entrenching an unequal relationship with the school boards. They profit by bypassing the taxation system from which the funds for public education are extracted, while at the same time gaining a new consumer base from their presence in schools. With the ability to infiltrate the lives of children, and the major restructuring of educational funding, the stage is set for aggressive marketing towards children in any environment.
A further example of advertisement within the TDSB was the implementation of the Future Shop Future Lab in two high schools. The Future Lab is a computer lab fully funded by Future Shop. Contingent on receiving the money the schools had to agree to paint the lab the company’s signature red and grey colours, and also had to be within 7km of a Future Shop retail location.
With sufficient provincial funding for education, the system need not rely on funding subsidies and concomitant restrictions imposed by the private sector. However, if the current trend is not interrupted, the Toronto District School Board along with other boards in Ontario, will soon be further relying corporate involvement in schools to subsidize their budgets, to the detriment of our children’s education and physical and psychological health.