Most States Don’t Limit Schools’ Business Deals, GAO Says

By Darcia Harris Bowman — September 20, 2000 3 min read

Where to draw the line on corporate advertising and merchandising directed at students is often left up to the discretion of local school boards and district officials, according to a U.S. General Accounting Office report released last week.

While federal and state laws that generally govern commercial activity in schools are on the books, only 19 states have statutes or regulations targeting specific activities, the report shows. And the agency characterizes the laws in 14 of those states as narrow in scope.

For More Information

The GAO report, “Commercial Activities in Schools,” is available online. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The GAO, a congressional agency that conducts studies requested by federal lawmakers, uses a broad definition of commercial activities that encompasses everything from student-led candy sales to advertisements on school buses, corporate logos on school equipment and athletic uniforms, and market research aimed at students.

The report does not assess how prevalent such activities are, but most observers say they’re becoming an increasingly popular way for schools to raise money.

“I don’t think we know enough yet, but this is coming fast and furious at schools and school boards,” Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who requested the study along with Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., said in an interview last week. “What the GAO report confirms is there ought to be conscious decisions [about commercial activities in schools], and those decisions ought to include parents.”

Rep. Miller introduced a bill with Sen. Dodd earlier this month that would require schools to obtain parents’ permission before students participate in market research. But the California lawmaker stopped short last week of recommending any specific federal or state action based on the GAO’s findings.

Groups Highlight Issue

Critics of commercialization in schools, however, planned a range of activities to coincide with the report’s release. They generally argue that students shouldn’t have to be exposed to corporate influences or advertising without their consent.

The Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education, based at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, put out its own report contending that commercial activities in schools have increased greatly over the past decade, based on how many times such activities have been mentioned in newspapers and other print media.

The Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, based in Oakland, Calif., released a sample of recommended school board policies on commercialism, and the Washington-based group Commercial Alert called on Congress to spend some of the federal budget surplus on schools so schools aren’t forced to turn to corporate contracts.

“A little extra money could reduce the temptation for the schools to sell their kids to advertising,” Gary Ruskin, the director of Commercial Alert, said in a prepared statement.

The GAO reported finding some form of commercialism in all 19 schools it visited between November 1999 and last month. The most visible form of direct marketing the investigators saw were soft drink ads on vending machines and high school scoreboards. And product sales, primarily soft drink contracts in secondary schools and fund-raising sales in lower grades, were the most common type of commercialization found in all the schools they visited.

But the amount of money such deals generate can vary widely, the study found. While a beverage contract in one district yields as much as $1.5 million a year, a deal in another school system calls for one payment of $12,000 plus an annual commission of $4,800.

Dan DaRose, the president of DD Marketing, a Pueblo, Colo.-based firm that negotiates contracts between schools and companies, argued that schools would be hard-pressed to replace the revenue they get from such arrangements.

“Corporations have been in our public schools for a long time, and we believe it’s the responsibility of the districts to manage that corporate involvement,” Mr. DaRose said. “Each district varies, each needs to decide its level of comfort and make sure the ads they allow in their schools market positive educational messages.”