If someone offered you a dollar a year to advertise to your child, potentially putting their safety in jeopardy, would you do it? Of course not. Yet that’s what many New Jersey school districts are doing by placing ads on the exterior of their school buses.
A familiar yellow school bus sends a message, loud and clear: “precious cargo.” However, New Jersey is one of only nine states where that message can be clouded by another one: “buy this.” In 2011, the Legislature felt compelled to pass a law which permits school bus advertising by the promise of robust returns that would help close school budget gaps. But those returns have not materialized. So isn’t it time for New Jersey lawmakers to repeal this law?
With public school budgets growing ever tighter in recent years, many states have considered overturning longstanding prohibitions on school bus advertising in their efforts to raise money for their schools. But the overwhelming majority of states have rejected the idea, for good reason.
Advertising on school buses exploits a captive audience of schoolchildren and undermines the efforts of parents who wish to have their children attend a school that is free from commercial influences. And anything advertised on a school bus comes with a school’s implicit endorsement, even if it’s a product harmful to a child’s well-being.
Ads may also make school buses less safe. The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services and the New Jersey School Bus Owners Association both oppose allowing advertising on the exterior of school buses because of concerns that the ads distract other drivers.
New Jersey was one of the few states that felt the promise of revenue outweighed these concerns, and voted to allow school districts to place ads on their buses. Now, five years later, we have data that shows those promises simply weren’t true.
Using public records requests, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) obtained revenue figures on the 16 New Jersey school districts which have contracts to display ads on school buses. (Thankfully this is only a small fraction of the 277 New Jersey school districts which own their own buses.) Ad revenue has been paltry. Since 2011, these 16 districts have collected a total of only $145,999 from school bus advertising, which amounts to, on average, less than a dollar a year per student from those ads.
Results from other states are similar. In Jordan School District in Utah, which has over 51,000 students, school bus advertising also generates less than a dollar a year in revenue per student. School districts like Plano, Texas, and Ypsilanti, Michigan, have dumped their school bus ad programs when they did not generate enough revenue.
The meager income is not worth the trade-off of compromising student safety and turning our school buses into rolling billboards. We are sympathetic to the financial plight of schools, and we appreciate how much energy school staff and parents put into creative ways to close the gap and make sure students have the resources, activities, and opportunities they need and deserve. But commercializing schools and school buses is not the answer.
It’s time to end this failed experiment, legislators. Let’s go back to yellow school buses. Just plain yellow.
David Monahan is Campaign Manager of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, headquartered in Boston.
Anna Sandler wrote and is signing this letter solely in her capacity as a resident of Maplewood. Her opinions do not represent the opinions of TAPinto and TAP into SOMA.