June 21st, 2003

PTA Turning to Corporate Sponsors for Funds

By Caroline E. Mayer
Washington Post

The National PTA has concluded that things go better with Coke.

The parent-teacher group, which has told inquiring parents that it opposes advertising and marketing in schools, has accepted a donation from Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. for a program to increase parent involvement in schools.

The joint venture, announced last month, is part of a growing effort by the PTA to solicit more corporate backers. “Corporate sponsors are not new to nonprofits, but they are fairly new to us,” PTA President Shirley Igo said. “We really need them. Our budget is very thin and if we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t be able to develop new programs.”

Igo declined to say how much the company was donating to the PTA, but she said total corporate sponsorships now account for 4 percent of the association’s $ 11 million budget. She said the donation didn’t conflict with the group’s stand on commercialism in schools because it “is not child-focused but adult-focused. This is not an endorsement of Coke by us; we’re just partnering with Coca-Cola to encourage parent and community involvement.”

The partnership comes at a time when soft-drink manufacturers and their aggressive promotions to install vending machines in schools have come under attack by many parents, nutritionists and opponents of commercialization. Some localities are moving to ban or limit these machines in schools.

Loretta Pleasant-Jones, a parent activist who has served as a PTA vice president at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, said she was appalled by the announcement. “I know the PTA may need money, but when they accept money from whomever, it loses its independence. How can a PTA now turn and say, ‘We want the Coke machines out of our schools?’ “

Gary Ruskin, executive director of the nonprofit group Commercial Alert, sent a letter to Igo earlier this month urging her to return Coca-Cola’s money. “Instead of promoting the welfare of children, the National PTA is promoting the welfare of a corporation that seeks to fill them with sugar and caffeine,” he wrote. 

The PTA promotes the joint venture with Coca-Cola on its Web site, calling the company one of the group’s “proud sponsors.” Coca-Cola Enterprises is the bottler of the popular soft drink and an independent publicly traded company, although Coca-Cola Co. owns a little more than a third of the bottling concern.  Spokeswoman Debbie Moody said the bottling company’s 434 local facilities and 70,000 employees have long been involved with the PTA. The joint venture “is yet another way to recognize the work it’s doing and build awareness about parent involvement.”

Other corporate backers include Disney Interactive and Microsoft Corp., which last fall helped sponsor back-to-school programs advising parents on how technology can encourage learning and help with homework.

The money Coca-Cola is donating will go to the Parent Involvement School Certification Program, in which schools with outstanding parent-involvement practices receive certifications of excellence. Since the program began last fall, 200 schools have won certification.

Opportunities for businesses to help are plentiful, the PTA notes on its Web site. “When you work with National PTA, your company demonstrates its commitment to improving the life and education of every child.” Companies may be able to gain recognition by distributing material to more than 26,000 local PTAs, using the “Proud Sponsor of National PTA” label on its product packaging, getting the company’s logo on the group’s Web site and getting mentioned in the PTA’s weekly e-newsletter.

According to a standard e-mail that the PTA has sent to consumers complaining about the Coke deal, the “National PTA firmly believes advertising, marketing and collecting personal information on children has no place in the classroom.” But each such decision, Igo added, has to be made at the local level. “It’s not something we can dictate.”

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