'Lovin' it' in Las Vegas

6th July 2007 at 01:00
Casinos and McDonald's are funding schools in the US gambling capital, writes David Marley

THE LAS VEGAS strip is the neon-lit heart of the fastest growing city in America. Tens of thousands of hotel rooms stretch into the desert to cater for the tourists who bet on the spin of a wheel.

It is the brashest example of American capitalism at work. But it is also now part of an experiment to give business sponsors to schools.

Last week Gordon Brown announced that schools in the UK should have much closer links with corporate partners. In the US, that tradition is well established. In Las Vegas, where gaming is the only business that counts, casinos are sponsoring schools.

Paul Culley elementary school has languished at the bottom of league tables for years. All of its 950 pupils claim free school meals. But as part of a drive to raise standards it has been paired with MGM Mirage, the biggest employer, landowner and taxpayer in Nevada and owner of the largest casinos and hotels on the Las Vegas strip.

The multi-billion pound company donates $50,000 (pound;25,000) a year to supply books and equipment for the children. According to Punam Mathur, senior vice-president for community affairs at MGM, the money is the least important aspect of the deal. "Some people view these as casinos and hotels, but they are laboratories. Maths and science can be brought to life here for children," she said.

Before the partnership, many of the pupils had never visited the strip, despite living only five miles away. Now they have been taken on field trips to look at butterflies and plants at the Bellagio hotel and casino's botanical gardens and used its fountains to study force.

The school's principal, Lisa Primas, admitted that, even in Vegas, there were concerns about a casino becoming so intimately involved in the running of a school. "People raised doubts, but we made sure they understood that it was helping the kids," she said. "This has nothing to do with indoctrinating children to become gamblers."

Despite the money pouring into Las Vegas, finance for its 326 schools is lagging far behind. Education funding is partly dependent on property taxes. With a largely transient population of low-paid workers, schools receive less money than in wealthier neighbourhoods.

Paul Culley is not the only school linking with big business. On the side of a main road, 15 minutes drive from the strip, one of the city's numerous branches of McDonald's is holding a McTeacher's night. Twice a year, teachers from Vegas Verde elementary school don McDonald's uniforms and man the tills. The school takes 20 per cent of the takings to help pay for new books and field trips, which can amount to $500. In the car park, staff organise games and raffles to increase the total to $1,000.

It is replicated at thousands of branches of McDonald's across the US. The company offers tips to schools on how to make the most of the evenings. Teachers are encouraged to sing the "I'm lovin' it" jingle when they receive a tip.

Kip Krzmarzick, principal of Vegas Verde, said the event was a chance to build community spirit. "Look around, this place is packed. It gives me the chance to talk to parents who might not be so comfortable coming to school."

He said no parent or teacher has ever complained about the school's endorsement of McDonald's. "Our parents care about a nutritious diet, but many of them will come here from time to time anyway."

There have been pockets of resistance to McTeacher's events. In San Francisco, parents and teachers staged demonstrations. But rebellion hasn't reached the strip.

US under scrutiny

Teacher's TV screens a series of documentaries about the United States education system. Education USA examines the role of businesses in schools in Las Vegas, who controls them, and attempts to reduce the education divide between rich and poor. 'Profiting from school' will be shown on Monday at 12.30 on freeview and at 8pm on Sky, Virgin and Tiscali TV. All films can be downloaded at www.teachers.tv

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