It may indicate a certain critical mass when members of Congress direct the General Accounting Office to study an issue. By that standard, the commercialization of classrooms may have arrived.
A just-released GAO study offers some arresting statistics: More than 200 school districts have signed contracts with soft-drink companies giving them exclusive franchises on local campuses; almost a quarter of middle and high schools show Channel One on classroom TVs.
Channel One sparked the first wave of concern about the commercial exploitation of schoolchildren a decade ago. The company provides free cable-news and feature programming to schools in return for running ads. Advertisers, of course, are glad to get guaranteed exposure to a young audience.
The arguments raised then are just as valid now. Education and commercialism are not a good mix. Schools should be one place where children can be free from commercial pitches - where the focus is on their budding intellects, not their taste buds or fashion contests with their buddies.
Getting a reading on kids' tastes and spending habits lies behind this commercial intrusion. Some companies are offering schools free computers that flash ads and are set up to collect data about their young users. Such data is like gold to advertisers.
The GAO report throws light on this and other facets of school commercialism. It ought to grab the attention of state legislators, who are in the best position to do something. Today's push toward reform and academic rigor should not be subject to commercial interruption.
From exclusive soft-drink contracts to computers displaying continuous advertising, corporate marketing in public schools is rising sharply. But few states have laws in place to address the phenomenon, and most decisions on commercial arrangements in schools are made piecemeal by local officials, according to a report from the General Accounting Office scheduled to be released today.
"In-school marketing has become a growing industry," the report stated. "Some marketing professionals are increasingly targeting children in schools, companies are becoming known for their success in negotiating contracts between school districts and beverage companies, and both educators and corporate managers are attending conferences to learn how to increase revenue from in-school marketing for their schools and companies."
Until now, there has been no comprehensive effort to measure the number of commercial contracts with schools. But school board officials, consultants and nonprofit organizations that follow education issues say it is clear that such contracts are far more common now than they were even two years ago.
About 25 percent of the nation's middle schools and high schools now show Channel One, a broadcast of news features and commercials, in their classrooms, and about 200 school districts have signed exclusive contracts with soft-drink companies to sell their beverages in schools. And in at least one case, students using computers in classrooms were offered incentives to enter personal data - names, addresses, information on personal habits - which would then be sold to advertisers.
Recognizing that the nation's 47.2 million students are an increasingly lucrative target market for consumer product companies, school districts are often willing to join with corporations. They see the money as one way to supplement tight budgets without having to raise taxes. But at the same time, few school officials are an even match for experienced corporate marketers. "They're trained in the three R's, and the R's don't include retail," one North Carolina school official noted last year.
Over the last three years, many school districts have signed contracts with soft- drink giants like Coca-Cola and Pepsico, in which vending machines in hallways function as glowing billboards for their brands. A math textbook published in 1995 by McGraw-Hill and approved for use in about 15 states names many consumer products, including Gatorade, Sega and Sony video games and Nike sneakers, in its problems. McGraw-Hill said it received no compensation for the use of the corporate names.
Companies like Zap Me, which is based in San Ramon, Calif., offer schools free computers with screens that include continuously flashing ads. Zap Me also collects information that students provide and makes it available to its advertisers - including Microsoft and Toshiba, which also supply the computers - said Bob Stern, a spokesman for the company.
The G.A.O. report cites textbook covers distributed by Clairol, Ralph Lauren, Reebok and Philip Morris with company names and logos fully displayed. In New York City, the Board of Education is considering a plan that would provide computers for all of its students, starting in the fourth grade. The computers might carry ads and possibly encourage shopping on a particular Web site.
A spokesman for the National Soft Drink Association said local bottlers signed contracts with the schools in part to support the schools and in part to promote their products. "The brand loyalty that is gained by having these products available to kids when they get thirsty during the day is valuable to these companies," said Sean McBride, the spokesman.
All the activity has aroused concern in communities from Montclair, N.J., to Madison, Wis., to Birmingham, Ala., where companies have made deals with schools that let them promote their products to students. The demand for product placement in schools has even created a separate consulting niche.
School districts are expected to make decisions about commercial agreements using their own discretion, said Renee Williams Hockaday, a spokeswoman for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. "It is obviously a growing issue," she said, adding that the agreements "could be something positive, as long as the students don't turn into walking advertisements for these companies with no benefit to their learning environment."
The report, prepared over the last year, is the first government study to address commercialism in schools. It stops short of pinpointing the effects of in-school advertising, noting that "because advertising in ubiquitous in America, it is difficult - if not impossible - to distinguish between the effects of advertising to which students are exposed inside and outside of school." The G.A.O. will study the issue again in the next year or so and quantify the spread of commercial activity in schools.
The report, which includes color photographs of ads atop school bus stops, over computer carrels and on soda vending machines, was ordered by Representative George Miller, a Democrat of California, and Senator Christopher J. Dodd, a Democrat of Connecticut. In an interview, Mr. Miller said he was prompted by concern over data being collected about students through computers given to their schools by Zap Me.
"Not a lot of attention is being paid to whether parents agree with this or want their children to participate or not participate," he said. "Sometimes parents have a different opinion from that of the superintendent or the school board."
Senator Dodd said he planned to send letters to parent-teacher groups around the country to urge them to read the report. There is still time, he said, for lawmakers and others to resolve the issues. "This hasn't gotten totally out of hand yet," he said. "Most schools are still doing a pretty good job." He added, however, that he was shocked that many schools said they were unaware that the "free" computers they received from companies could be used to collect, and sell, marketing data from their students.
"There is a tremendous amount of information being solicited and used to market back to kids without administrative consent or parental consent," he said. "If you had an 8-year- old or a 10-year-old, would you allow someone to come into your house to do a survey on your child without your consent?"
The report is being hailed by some as proof that commercial activity in schools is a growing threat. "This is the first official government confirmation that commercialism in schools is a problematic issue," said Andrew Hagelshaw, director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education in Oakland, Calif., which has waged many grass-roots battles against soft-drink contracts and Channel One. "Public schools are publicly funded and are supposed to be the one place where kids don't get advertised to. It's completely inappropriate to turn that venue into a place where companies get to promote brand-name products."
Mr. Hagelshaw said he had seen something of a backlash against commercialism in schools recently. Last year, the 15-million-member Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution against Channel One, because it advertises to schoolchildren. In Madison, Wis., one of the first school districts to sign an exclusive contract with Coca-Cola, the school board recently voted not to renew the arrangement. San Francisco earlier this year turned down an exclusive contract with Pepsi, Mr. Hagelshaw said.
Another longtime critic of commercial activity in schools predicted that the report would encourage state legislatures to act. "This is going to raise the visibility of this issue enormously," said Alex Molnar, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who directs the university's three- year-old Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education.
Mr. Miller and Mr. Dodd have sponsored a bill, now part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, that is pending before the House and would require parental consent for market-research activities in schools.
"Let's not pretend this is child's play," Mr. Miller said. "This is not some benevolent effort to give away computers. This is a cold, calculating effort to make customers out of children."
Mr. Molnar says students could be harmed by the promotion of products through schools. "One could argue that a person comes to the marketplace skeptical, as a consumer," he said, "but in a school, everything that's going on is supposed to be good for you. When you take that venue and you exploit it for a particular special interest, you do a lot of damage to children." For example, he added, soft drinks, candy, snack food and fast food are all advertised in schools in many places, lending them a credibility they may not deserve nutritionally.
"Ultimately, this is the kind of thing that promotes cynicism in children," he said. ********************************************* -- Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O] (618) 457-8903 [H] Fax: (618) 453-4244 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org