With state funding waning, the San Francisco Unified School District is facing yet another challenge to its long-standing position against advertising in public schools — this time, it is branded tote bags and iPad cases from Verizon Communications.
In recent years, the school district has more readily turned to technology companies and other corporations to fund its endeavors. The district’s largest investor, Salesforce.org, just committed another $6 million this school year to expand digital learning, and the district’s new nonprofit wing, Spark SF Public Schools, hopes to cull $42 million over the next two years.
But more investments have come with more challenges to the district’s prohibition on advertising. Almost two decades ago, the school board passed the landmark Commercial-Free Schools Act in response to ad-wrapped vending machines promoting unhealthy foods and tobacco subsidiaries advertising in San Francisco’s public schools.
Last month, the Board of Education made an exception to that policy for the Golden State Warriors to place their logo on the basketball courts outside Willie Brown Middle School in exchange for the team’s financial support of the new school and partnership with its community.
The exemption raised concerns among school board members who worried about the precedent it possibly set — a potential slippery slope for a school district looking for funding to increase Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)-based learning.
But late Tuesday, the school board held the line. Board members expressed concerns over commercialization in schools under a $3 million partnership with Verizon, in which the company would cover most of the costs for tablets, cases and services for the SFUSD.
The board withheld its vote on a policy waiver that would have allowed Verizon to donate $68,000 worth of iPad cases to three middle schools in San Francisco because the cases bear the Verizon logo, which Commissioner Sandra Fewer called “direct marketing” to students.
“To put the Warriors’ insignia on a basketball court is very different than this,” said Fewer, who is running for city supervisor, at the meeting. “We want a firewall around our students.”
Understanding the board’s concerns, Interim Superintendent Myong Leigh — in his first month leading the SFUSD — withdrew the proposal and directed his staff to renegotiate the terms of the partnership with Verizon, called the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program.
“We want to take anything that comes along that does have such high potential for enhancing the learning for our students … on a case-by-case basis,” Leigh said at the meeting, “and to work with the partner to manage any of the concerns about visibility and branding.”
Under the partnership, Verizon has proposed donating 3,000 iPads — and the cases to go along with them — to James Denman, Herbert Hoover and Roosevelt middle schools in San Francisco. The tablets include free internet access and students would be able to take them home.
Staff is expected to see if Verizon would be willing to move forward with the donation without the cases or tote bags that are expected to be given out alongside the iPads next month during an event for Verizon. The ceremony will include promotional signage for the company, which the school board decided to allow without a waiver.
The program also involves professional development training for teachers that started last spring, $25,000 per school for a full-time technology coach at each campus and $20,000 per year for a “storyteller” to document the program, according to the SFUSD.
Lita Blanc, who heads the local teachers union, said at the meeting she was concerned that the company was buying the customer loyalty of students, parents and school communities.
“Verizon has some interest, true interest in providing iPads to our students,” Blanc said. “But like any big corporation, its overriding interest is in guaranteeing profits for its shareholders.”educationiPadSan FranciscoschoolsSFUSDVerizon