Bad Idea

Announced Madison school board candidate Ed Hughes had a guest column in last Sunday’s Wisconsin State Journal suggesting that MMSD sell the naming rights to the new school. For many reasons, but mostly because of the messages this sends our children, our citizenry and our elected officials, his is bad idea.

US Court of Appeals Judge Joseph Blocher has written about the first amendment issues involved in the policy Hughes supports. Blocher predicts a coming “wave of school naming rights cases,” maybe Madison would have nice ride, but the possibility of wiping out exists. Hughes blithely asserts that the Board could not accept purely commercial names, but Blocher indicates that once naming is put out to bid the allowable restrictions are not clear. Even if the rejection of crass commercialism is allowed, the Board could be faced with a situation where the supporters of Vang Pao or much worse were the highest bidders. That’s a hornet’s nest I don’t think we want to enter.

During the Marquette–Lapham controversy, Paul Soglin noted the futility of one time sales of assets in order to meet operating expenses. Although I am less absolute than Soglin on this, he makes a good point. Hughes imagines interest from the money going for a literacy coordinator. Assuming this is feasible, I think the experience of the Overture Centure should have taught us about relying on projected endowment earnings for operating expenses. What happens when the money is gone? I suppose that the “one time” aspect could be circumvented by leasing naming rights or selling them piecemeal – so much for the auditorium, so much for the principal’s office, so much for the computer lab – in order to keep the money flowing. This would make a bad idea worse. Our Board has enough to do without going into the auction business and each sale would compound all the negatives discussed below.

Hughes draws upon the example of the Atwood Community Center being renamed the Goodman Atwood Community Center, but neglects to mention an important distinguishing characteristic. The Goodman Atwood center is a private entity, the public schools are not.

Given the state of school finance, I understand the pragmatic desire to secure funding wherever possible, but with funding comes control. Whatever their failings, I prefer control remain with the voters and our elected board. Thanks to a successful referendum, the construction for the new school in Madison school has already been secured but in other districts naming rights are being sold in order to fund construction. Madison will need other new schools in the coming years and it doesn’t take much imagination to see that right to name a school in a wealthy area will bring more than the right to name a high poverty school and in this manner and whatever the real needs private funds could easily become part of the equation. Most of the districts that have put naming rights on the market have also sought monies for specific programs or facilities, like the The Electronic Arts (video game company) Learning Center in Belmont Ca, Acuity Auditorium in Plymouth, WI or the Shoprite playgound in Brooklawn NJ. Compter labs, playgrounds and auditoriums are great, but how many corporations or individuals would pay to have their name attached to school psychologist office or remedial math programs? I don’t want our school’s priorities shaped by wealthy (any more than they already are).

Back to Hughes’ literacy coordinator, maybe there are other schools in the district with a greater need for this position but Hughes attaches it to the new school. Tough luck for those kids in the schools with nothing desirable to sell.

Seeking this kind of funding also undermines the efforts for tax fairness and adequate funding of education. By definition, individuals and corporations who can afford to purchase the honor of naming a school have accumulated excess wealth. It would be swell to see some of that wealth go to public schools but I much prefer that it go their via taxation and not in order to market a product or as a purchased ego trip. And with each sale the anti tax people and the privatizers gain momentum: “Why should we pay taxes when there is unrealized revenue from naming rights? Why have public schools at all, let’s let those who can afford it decide what kind of schools we should have?’

All the above recommend at very least a more thorough exploration of the issues involved than Hughes seems to have made and in my opinion provide sufficient grounds for the Board to not go into the business of selling naming rights, but the primary reasons I hope the Board rejects this out of hand are more basic to the purpose of our schools.

Our schools are there to transmit knowledge and values and the knowledge and values inherent in the selling of naming rights are not the ones I believe we should be transmitting. My elementary school was named after Martin Luther King Jr. To this day, I take pride in that and I believe that my values have been shaped by the impression made on my young mind by my community’s choice to honor King. The odds of anyone ponying up a cool million to name a school after MLK are pretty slim. Selling the naming rights takes away opportunities of this sort. Assuming Hughes is right and commercial messages could be avoided and that names of insufficient honor could be rejected, resulting in a bought names that were “less prominent but still honorable,” the message remains that ours is a society where honor is for sale. Is this what we want to teach our children? Do you want to explain that Rev. JC Wright dedicated his life to our community and he is being honored for that and Joe Schmoe was an OK guy who made a killing in real estate so he gets a school named after him too? I don’t.

Our schools should represent the best of our society, our hopes and aspirations for the future, our quest for equity. Everywhere, inequality is in control, wealth is celebrated and rewarded and there are too few places where other values get their due. The schools should be one such place. Our schools are far from perfect and their quest to live up to these ideals will always be a work in progress. Still, we lose much when we were to sell any portion of that vision. Schools should not be for sale, not to the highest bidder, not to the highest non-commercial or “less prominent but still honorable” bidder.

Some ideas are so bad that their failings are apparent at a glance. Selling the naming rights falls into that category for me. Still, I can respect others who are less certain and want to explore the possibilities (if they do, I hope the issues I have touched on here are part of the discussion and I’d be glad to consider what others have to say). I have more trouble with a school board candidate who is so dazzled by the possibility of “easy” money that he has given no apparent attention to the difficulties inherent in and the possible negative consequences of his proposal. Maybe Hughes has considered these and come to an opposite conclusion. Even if that is the case, his simplistic boosterism is not the sort of public discussion our schools benefit from. We need leaders who understand that very little in educational policy is simple and demonstrate a willingness to transparently grapple with the complexities.

The Board of Education will decide on a process for the naming on Monday. Let’s all hope that they don’t end up with something like Hughes has proposed.

Some additional links (more food for thought and discussion):

Law Professor Anne Bartow: “Trademarks of Privilege: Naming Rights and the Physical Public Domain”

Savvy School or Capitalist Tool? (Wired)

Commercial Alert (education issues)

Commercialism in Education Research Unit, Education Policy Studies Laboratory, Arizona State University, Tempe

Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood

In Public Schools, the Name Game as a Donor Lure (New York Times)


Filed under AMPS, Best Practices, Budget, Equity, Local News, School Finance

2 responses to “Bad Idea

  1. david cohen

    However, remember that the Board’s latest policy on advertising doesn’t preclude naming rights for buildings anymore than it precludes naming rights for football stadiums- so long as the name/product meets certain criteria. Of course it’s all knee-jerk in response to the current fiscal pressures in Wisconsin public schools, but the fact remains that naming rights ARE here to stay. Regardless of their potentially inequitable application, a case-by-case basis is the only practical way to wade through these types of issues. I don’t object to Ed Hughes’ ideas- though I’d like to see some further thought given to these matters so that a more equitable distribution of monies occurs when a “naming right” is sold.

  2. tmertz

    Dave you are right that the naming policy refers to the sponsorship policy and the selling option is allowed.

    I was looking for something else and just found this article that kind of splits the difference between the my position and that of Ed Hughes. The issue is off the table for now, but I still find it interesting:


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