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Giving Kids the Business

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The new, mercantile edge to school reform.

When Michael Milken, the junk bond king, was let out of prison, he said that he wanted to be involved in education because he considered it one of the biggest moneymakers for American business. He isn't alone. Christopher Whittle, the irrepressible father of Channel One, is now hard at work trying to lure potential investors to the Edison Project with the claim that one market point in the education market is worth $2.8 billion to any business savvy enough to figure out how to capture it.

The attempt to mine childhood for commercial advantage is nothing new, either in American schools or American society. As early as 1929, concern about the influence of corporations on school curriculum was sufficiently strong for the National Education Association to empanel a "Committee on Propaganda in the Schools."

In 1959, Saatchi & Saatchi, the New York advertising agency, created the first television ad aimed exclusively at children. The only problem was that there was nowhere on television to show it. Not willing to let their creation, the Trix rabbit, go homeless, Saatchi & Saatchi invented Saturday-morning children's television so their ad would have programming to interrupt. Thirty years later, when Channel One was brought to life with millions of high-voltage advertising dollars, the "vast wasteland" of American commercial television went to school.

Sheila Harty's 1979 book, Hucksters in the Classroom, documented the extent to which corporate propaganda was being used in the nation's schools in the areas of nutrition, nuclear power, the environment, and economics. Yet, alarming as they were, the practices Ms. Harty detailed were only a prelude to the unparalleled commercial onslaught that was to come.

In the 1980s, a Rubicon of sorts was crossed. Not only did the volume of advertising reach new levels of intrusiveness--often under the guise of helping cash-strapped schools fill in the gap left by missing tax dollars--but marketing efforts were unashamedly characterized as legitimate contributions to curriculum content, as helpful teaching aids, and as a good way of promoting school-business partnerships.

It wasn't long before a commercial wave broke over the schools. In homes across America, parents may have discovered that their sons and daughters had been given a "Gushers" fruit snack, told to burst it between their teeth, and asked by their teacher to compare the sensation to a geothermic eruption (compliments of General Mills). Children were taught the history of the potato chip (compliments of the Potato Board and the Snack Food Association). Adolescent girls learned about self-esteem by discussing "Good Hair Days" and "Bad Hair Days" in class (compliments of Revlon). Tootsie Roll provided a lesson on "The Sweet Taste of Success." Exxon sent out a videotape, "Scientists and the Alaska Oil Spill," to help teachers reassure students that the Valdez disaster wasn't so bad after all. And Prego spaghetti sauce offered to help students learn science by comparing the thickness of Prego sauce to that of Ragu.

One or two examples of dishonest, self-serving, or downright bizarre corporate material might be laughed off as aberrations. But it's no laughing matter when, by their sheer volume, sponsored materials threaten to turn the school curriculum into a booming, buzzing confusion; when the energy and focus of a school are diverted from the education of children to the promotion of commercial interests; when the trust parents have that what their children are being taught in school is important information, honestly presented, is routinely violated; and when children are encouraged to associate a particular product with personal worth and academic success.

By 1990, the situation was bad enough for Consumers Union to call for schools to be made ad-free zones. In 1995, a Consumers Union report, "Captive Kids," filled in the details of a commercial assault continuing unabated.

Conflicts over sex education, religious values, and censorship regularly find their way into the media. However, the ethical problems created by using corporate-sponsored materials in the schools rarely rise to the surface. In part, this is because of the extent to which commercial values have assumed the status of common sense. And, in part, it is because of corporate power, as Rush Limbaugh--who likes to position himself as an unflinching teller of uncomfortable truths--found out last year.

The BOOK IT! program rewards children who meet their reading goals with free pizza. Mr. Limbaugh had criticized it (accurately) as little more than "bribes for books." During his May 25, 1995, radio show, he learned that the BOOK IT! program was sponsored by Pizza Hut, a company for which he did commercials. In response, he proclaimed: "I'm demonstrating my independence. Just because I do a Pizza Hut commercial does not mean that I have been purchased hook, line, and sinker."

At a time when American children are increasingly overweight and at risk of coronary disease, they have been taught how the heart functions from a poster advertising junk food and been served high-fat meals by the fast-food concessionaires that run their school cafeterias

It took only one day for Mr. Limbaugh to adjust his attitude: "Since the program ended yesterday, I have been in, and my staff have been in, almost hourly contact with the officials at Pizza Hut. ... Now, I've got my mind right, ladies and gentlemen. I've had it 'splained to me by a number of different people and I'm prepared here to do a mea culpa because I didn't understand what the whole thing was about yesterday."

What it was about was power. Mr. Limbaugh learned that the people paying the piper call the tune. As comical or inconsequential as the programs they purchase may sometimes seem, sponsorship dollars come from powerful special interests that are very serious about pressing for advantage, whether it's on our airwaves or in our schools.

The pervasiveness of commercial activities has blurred the distinction between promoting special privilege and advancing the general welfare in education and has transformed children into commodities along the way. There is now little talk of the value of children in their own right--just because they are alive and we love them. Quite the contrary. At a time when poor children have been killed for their shoes, they are forced to watch advertising messages for high-priced sneakers. At a time when American children are increasingly overweight and at risk of coronary disease, they have been taught how the heart functions from a poster advertising junk food and been served high-fat meals by the fast-food concessionaires that run their school cafeterias. At a time when many children are literally made sick by the air they breathe, they are told that some of our nation's biggest polluters are their friends. And at a time when young people hunger for real connections and genuine relationships, they are fed illusions.

The language of school reform is often the language of commerce. Children are defined as "future customers," "future workers," "future taxpayers." They are expenses to be reduced and resources to be exploited. And spending on their schools is subject to "bottom line" considerations without reference to what justice demands.

In this mercantile atmosphere, the calculus of narrow self-interest viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of market ideology has apparently led many business leaders to conclude that education reform must now serve one or both of two corporate goals: to reduce corporate liability to support public education through tax dollars and/or to profit directly from the schools.

The original justification for corporate leadership in educational reform offered in the years following the publication of A Nation at Risk has been turned on its head. The emphasis has shifted from the contribution good schools make to everyone's economic well-being to how public schools can be used to increase the profits of particular businesses. This shift helps explain corporate America's increasing interest in market-based reforms such as private school vouchers, for-profit schools, and charter schools.

These privatizing reforms not only serve corporate economic interests, they have also helped cement a political alliance between the business community and neoconservative ideologues like former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and Michael Joyce, the president of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, who are intent on destroying what they call the public school "monopoly." The potency of this alliance is reflected in the Dole presidential campaign's passionate embrace of private school vouchers.

Commercialism is now firmly entrenched in our schools, and advertising messages blanket many of our classrooms. In order to raise money, educators are giving increasing attention to trivial and distracting marketing schemes. Meanwhile, the market-based school-reform band plays on, as ever larger numbers of our children receive an education that falls far short of any defensible standard of excellence or equity.

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