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Court Rules N.C. Boards Can Contract for 'Channel One'

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The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled last week that local school boards can sign contracts requiring daily classroom viewings of "Channel One," the controversial television news program for students that contains advertising.

In a 5-2 decision on April 3, the high court ruled that the program was supplementary instructional material, for which local boards have the authority to contract.

The state board of education passed an emergency rule in February 1990 prohibiting local boards from signing contracts with Whittle Communications, which provides the program. It subsequently sued the Thomasville school board, which signed up for the program in violation of the rule. (See Education Week, Feb. 28, 1990.)

The state board argued that by agreeing to show the 12-minute daily video program, which contains two minutes of advertising, school districts were delegating authority for selecting public-school curriculum to an outside, commercial corporation.

The suit sought to have the contract between Whittle and the Thomasville district voided on the grounds that it was "contrary to public policy, unlawful, unconstitutional, and in violation of the rules of the state board."

Gene Causby, executive director of the North Carolina School Boards Association, said members of his organization were "delighted" with the ruling.

Local Control At Issue

Mr. Causby noted, however, that the "friend of the court" brief that the association filed in the case was an attempt to clarify local boards' powers, and not a defense of Channel One.

"We said from day one that our issue wasn't whether Channel One was good, bad, or indifferent," Mr. Causby said, "but who is authorized to make the decision on supplementary materials."

Ed Winter, chairman of the Whittle Educational Network, called the ruling an "important victory."

"The court clearly says that using Channel One is a constitutionally valid use of the school day and that local school districts have the right to make this decision," Mr. Winter said in a statement.

But Patricia H. Neal, a member of the state board of education, said she was "extremely disappointed" with the court's ruling.

"It was decided along very narrow lines and didn't really address the major question in the case," Ms. Neal said, "which was whether or not local school boards should be able to sign contracts with companies which could control the instructional day for students."

The state board decided last week to ask the court to review its ruling, in light of the dissenting opinion, Ms. Neal said.

But board members do not plan to ask the legislature to revise the state's laws.

Students 'Not Forced' To Watch

In making its ruling, the court rejected the board's argument that it was not proper for districts functioning under the state's compulsory-attendance laws to force students to watch commercial advertising.

"The contract clearly provides that students are not required to watch the program," the court ruled, "and the students do not have to 'spend their time' watching the program if they do not wish to do so."

The court also rejected the board's contention that showing Channel One costs taxpayers money, because of the amount of time it takes to show the program.

"We see no expenditures of tax money for showing the program," the court said.

"The money spent for running the buses and paying teachers is the same amount that would be spent if the local school board did not contract with Whittle to show Channel One," it said.

Action in California

A similar argument against the commercial program has been made in California, where Bill Honig, the state superintendent of public instruction, has threatened to withhold state funds from districts that contract to show Channel One.

William L. Rukeyser, a special assistant to Mr. Honig, said the amount each district would be penalized would be based on the number of minutes of commercials students watched, because state payments to districts are based on the amount of instructional time students spend in school.

The state has not yet penalized any districts showing Channel One.

8,216 Schools Subscribe

Gary Belis, a spokesman for Whittle Communications, said he believes the North Carolina ruling will clear the way for California districts that had been hesitant about signing contracts to do so now.

"I suspect this ruling will have an effect in California," Mr. Belis said. "It will embolden them."

But Mr. Rukeyser disputed that assertion, noting that California's laws are different than North Carolina's.

"We have a vast array of legal and constitutional grounds on which to oppose Channel One here," he said.

According to Mr. Belis, the North Carolina lawsuit was the only court challenge presently facing Whittle Communications.

The company announced last week that it has signed up 8,216 public and private schools in 47 states and the District of Columbia. That number exceedes the 8,000-school goal Whittle set for itself in March 1989, when the program made its debut in several test sites, the company said.

In March 1990, Channel One went on the air in 400 schools.

In exchange for showing the daily programs, schools get the use of 19-inch color-television monitors, two videocassette recorders, a satellite dish to receive programming, and wiring throughout the school.

The largest districts to have subscribed to the Whittle network are Detroit, Jacksonville, Fla., Memphis, Philadelphia, and St. Louis, according to the company.

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