Responding to heightened advertising and marketing pressure from the corporate world, 13 states have passed laws over the past four years to curtail commercial activities in schools, according to a report released last week by the federal Government Accountability Office. Those states joined 28 others that had already taken such action before 2000.
Four of the 13 states curtailed or prohibited the sale of sodas and sugary foods in schools; others passed laws to prohibit student participation in market surveys without parental consent or to prevent the dissemination of student data for marketing or market research.
Over the past decade, more businesses have partnered with schools, the report by the congressional investigative agency points out. “In some of these relationships,” it says, “business’ apparent focus is on improving teaching and learning, but in others, the apparent focus is on developing product loyalty and increasing sales.”
The commercial environment in schools has become even more pronounced in recent years, as schools have faced budget cutbacks and as the use of the Internet as a marketing tool has expanded, said Eleanor L. Johnson, the GAO’s assistant director for education issues and a co-author of the report.
“The Internet has changed the way advertisers get student information,” she said. “It used to be that … you had to go through schools to get lists on student data. Now, advertisers on the Web simply run contests, and to get the prize, the students just answer [personal] questions.”
The report, requested by Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, also analyzes how and whether school districts have adopted or amended policies on student data use, as required under the No Child Left Behind Act.
The federal law amended the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment to require not only a student-data-use policy, but one that includes parental notification and permission.
GAO researchers found that of the 61 school district student-data policies they reviewed for the report, only 19 addressed the commercial use of such information.
“Our concern was that districts seemed to be confused,” Ms. Johnson said.
She added that the districts polled created their policies with input from state school boards, even though the U.S. Department of Education had not issued guidance specifically to state boards on commercial activity in schools.
Consequently, the report recommends that the U.S. Department of Education guide state school boards on how to craft policies that address the release of student data for commercial purposes.