Are we REALLY Okay With Selling Ad Space on Student Report Cards?

In one of the more surprising decisions that a public school district has made in recent memory, the Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado has started selling advertising space on student report cards.

For $90,000, Colorado's nonprofit education savings plan has bought the right to slap a big, fat advertisement on the bottom of every student report card for the next three years. 

In a district with 86,000 students who presumably get four report cards per year, that works out to about 3 cents per placement. 

Now, I understand WHY JEFFCO has been forced into this ridiculous decision:  Schools everywhere are feeling the pinch of poor economies. 

That means we either need to find new revenue streams — which is the choice JEFFCO has made — or we need to cut expenses even more than we already have.


But doesn't this scare anyone besides me?

In my horribly pessimistic mind, I can see the "next steps" playing out in sickening ways:

Local businesses will buy the right to print coupons on the bottom of student report cards as a part of behavior incentive and/or academic rewards programs. 

As skeptical New Zealand educator Allan Alach pointed out in Twitter today, this is the PERFECT "socially responsible" marketing plan for Burger King, McDonalds and Pizza Hut, isn't it?

For every A he earns, Johnny gets a coupon for a free Whopper when a large drink and a side of fries are purchased.  For every B, little Johnny will get a free Biggie Size upgrade on any Value Meal purchased.

And OBVIOUSLY — like my equally skeptical buddy Chris Wejr mentioned on Twitter today — kids with Fs will get coupons for free tutoring sessions at local learning centers. 

Recognizing that some customers are worth far more than others, businesses will start negotiating different rates depending on the schools that their advertisements run in. 

"We'll give you 1.1 cents for every ad you run in that poor, failing, inner-city school," the conversation will go, "and 3.8 cents for every ad you run in the affluent suburbs."

Worse yet, some strapped-for-cash district leader will buy into the "some communities are worth more than others" argument and hold out for 5 cents per ad in the rich schools. 

In a seemingly spontaneous moment of sheer brilliance, some business leader will suggest marketing different products to families of different ethnic groups or socio-economic status.

In the worst case scenario, stereotypical assumptions about the interests of families of different races or classes will drive choices for advertisements.

"How about museum coupons for kids in the suburbs and Putt-Putt Golf and Games coupons for kids in the inner city?" the supposedly harmless thinking will go.


In the best case scenario, new marketing companies will come in and offer parents the chance to choose the types of coupons and advertisements they want to see on the bottom of their kid's report card.

"Would y'all prefer food coupons or entertainment coupons?" the thinking will go.  "We offer both.  How GREAT is that?!"


In another seemingly spontaneous moment of sheer brilliance, some district leader will start selling the rights to print advertisements on interim reports, too.

Why stop at formal report cards, right?  Our school sends home grade sheets a few times per quarter.  If we're slapping ads on report cards, why NOT slap ads on those interim reports, too?

Sure, half of our interim reports never make it home — but they've GOT to be worth something, right?

And what about that "beginning of the year" paperwork that goes home every year: Supply lists, student data sheets, course outlines.  That's prime marketing real estate too, isn't it? 

Aren't parents more likely to be on the lookout for papers early in the year — and if so, can't we make MORE money by selling ads on THOSE kinds of documents? 


In a final seemingly spontaneous moment of sheer brilliance, local charter and private schools will begin buying ad space on the bottom of report cards in failing schools and districts.

Recognizing that this could put their own schools out of business, district officials will balk. 

Feeling jilted — and losing easy access to a potentially huge market for their services — the private and charter schools will sue, claiming that they are being unfairly discriminated against by a public agency.

The trial will last 2 years and cost taxpayers $2.2 million dollars to defend. 

Crazy stuff, isn't it?  What makes it crazier is that every one of my fictional scenarios is TOTALLY possible. 

So here's another solution:  Why don't we start providing our schools with the cash that they need in order to educate our children WITHOUT having to sell advertising space on student report cards.

Is that REALLY asking too much?


13 thoughts on “Are we REALLY Okay With Selling Ad Space on Student Report Cards?

  1. David B. Cohen

    Here’s an idea. Kids are already advertising all day long – Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirts, Nike shoes and hats, NFL/NBA/MLB team logos on everything – and when they enter the classroom they are like living advertisements for a captive audience. And our schools are not seeing a dime of that potential revenue. NEW RULE: you may not advertise anything in a classroom unless the school is paid. You have to cover up those logos, unless the brand/company has a contract with the school. Kids and families can enter into their own outside agreements with the companies, too.


    Hi Bill,
    I definitely agree with you. Report cards are NO place for advertising to appear. I could not imagine selling out my school like that.
    There always seem to be school leaders that make decisions that make all of us look bad!
    Thaks for sharing the news and giving us a place to share our views.

  3. Nancy Flanagan

    You make a good point, Bill–
    every time an “entrepreneur” uses a public good (and public schools are the most important public good in America) to make money, the idea of a common resource which benefits everyone and to which everyone has access takes a little hit.
    Years ago, Chris Whittle came around with Channel One, offering what were then cutting-edge tech toys, plus some “information” wrapped around commercials, to districts in exchange for a few minutes of kids’ time. Whittle was in the charter school biz, too, trading on the commercial leveraging possibilities in semi-privatizing public education.
    People made the same arguments then–hey, the local car dealer has a billboard ad in exchange for paying for the school stadium. Or–our kids already see hundreds of ads daily. What’s one or two more?
    It’s really hard to defend schools as incubators for democratic citizenship when they get bought out, in small and large ways, by people who just want to make money. Schools should be the last refuge of intellectual honesty. Ads on report cards are just tangible proof that public education is being starved by those who’d love to have access to the huge, untapped market of public ed.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Clix wrote:
    We sold ads for the school newspaper back when I was in high school. And we ran ads in the program for the school musical. Local businesses have big banners hanging in the football stadium. WHY NOT ask businesses to support academics as well as extracurriculars?
    I’m with you, Clix — businesses HAVE supported extracurriculars for years, and that IS a neat way to get community support for schools.
    But I’ve always seen that as an extra — a way to send the band to an out of state parade, a way to buy the football team flashy new uniforms, a way to get the best materials for the best costumes and sets for the school play.
    When we get to the point where we RELY on ads to support the basic functions of our school, haven’t we crossed a line?
    I guess I’m just sick of schools having to beg to be supported — and when we get to the point where we’re selling ad space on report cards to pay our bills, it feels a heck of a lot like begging.
    Any of this make sense?

  5. Clix

    I dunno, Bill. We sold ads for the school newspaper back when I was in high school. And we ran ads in the program for the school musical. Local businesses have big banners hanging in the football stadium. WHY NOT ask businesses to support academics as well as extracurriculars? This doesn’t seem all that new to me.

  6. Leslie Scarpa

    Being a former teacher and seeing first hand the education process, I don’t think there is always a direct correlation of more money equalling better education. Our country continues to raise the dollars per student spent, however we are still seeing gross deficiencies. A big part of the problem is HOW the money is being spent(wasted, in some instances). I taught in both wealthy and poor districts. The kids in BOTH districts would be motivated by incentives. If the kids are motivated and the schools are gaining income, I think it’s a win/win situation for all.

  7. Bill Ferriter

    Jason wrote:
    Besides the report cards are for parents so kids might not be staring at it like a TV ad.
    I think I’m more concerned with the messages that we’re sending about schools than I am about the impact of ads on kids, Jason.
    Shouldn’t we be concerned when our schools have to resort to corporate panhandling to pay their bills and to educate our kids?
    Does this make sense?

  8. Bill Ferriter

    Kevin wrote:
    These eyeballs are too young to be hit hard with products in places of learning.
    First, thanks for stopping by, Kevin. Great to see you in this space.
    Second, I think what concerns me the most is the message that is sent to students every time that they see an ad slapped around their school spaces.
    “We don’t care enough about your education to fully fund it ourselves,” we’re saying.
    “Your schools don’t have enough to do their job well,” we’re saying.
    “Solutions to education aren’t solved by communities who care. They’re solved by corporations,” we’re saying.
    All of those messages are going to have a negative impact on our kids that far exceeds the impact of individual ads.

  9. Jason Whitaker

    Wow, I hadn’t heard of this, but I’m not against it. If selling ad space on report cards gets the market place more interested in the next gen, I’m cool with that. Besides the report cards are for parents so kids might not be staring at it like a TV ad.

  10. Kevin Hodgson

    I saw this article, too, and almost threw up. This, on top of news of advertisements on lockers in schools, and on school buses. Damn it. It makes me mad to think this is where things are going (I get irate at the fences at my boys’ baseball fields, too, where businesses now advertise). These eyeballs are too young to be hit hard with products in places of learning.

  11. MrWejr

    Think of the target market here… This could brilliant for corporate America. Honor roll report cards most often come from those with money so those spaces would be worth more… PLUS the parents might be looking to reward their child for a good report card (which we all know is already a reward in itself) so the advertiser not only has a target market of those with money but also those in moods to spend. Schools and corporations win! Call Bill G and get him in on this!

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