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No. 1203:
Commercializing Schools

Today, we look for a way to support education. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

This week's Sunday New York Times tells a chilling tale about the Seattle school system. Its budget has been cut by 12 percent and it's seriously short of money. The school board has solved that problem with a simple policy change. They've voted to accept corporate advertising in middle and high schools.

For a long time, advertisers have known how effective it is to reach kids. Now they have means for getting into schools. As you and I worry about the decay of science and math education, advertisers offer to solve our problem, and it seems too good to turn down. So Hershey Foods gives Seattle kids a science video, along with a curriculum guide for their teachers. They call it the Chocolate Dream Machine. And Kellogg's offers nutrition posters.

Elsewhere in America, third-graders use Tootsie Rolls to practice their math, children learn to read with software that features corporate logos for junk food. We even find Prozac representatives speaking to a school assembly on National Depression Screening Day.

Education Professor Alex Molnar has written a book about these inroads: Giving Kids the Bu$iness. One widespread advertising gimmick is Channel One. That's a twelve-minute daily TV show transmitted to classrooms -- ten minutes of educational material and two minutes of advertising. In return for free TV receivers and a satellite dish the school promises to run the program in 90 percent of its classes for three years.

Molnar also points to the most insidious of these assaults. The Weekly Reader, which I read as a child, was bought by the R. J. Reynolds Company in 1991, and it has actually carried the Old Joe Camel logo into our schools. Since then, the Weekly Reader's anti-smoking messages have been reduced by a factor of three. Molnar also quotes research results that show Camel sales to children rising from six million dollars a year in 1988 to an astonishing $476 million in 1991. Tobacco companies are absolutely dependent on making addicts of our children before they reach an age of responsible choice, and now the schools are abetting them.

All this calls to mind Gresham's Law: "Bad money drives out the good." When essential civic services grow desperate for support, the people trying to run them turn a blind eye to the damage bad money does. And there can be no doubt that this is bad money. We badly need to beef up public education in America -- especially in math and science. It would be far cheaper to accomplish that with simple tax money.

One Seattle teacher says she's made her plans for using the Chocolate Dream Machine. "I'll say [to my students], 'Why do you think Hershey's sent this to teachers?'" She reminds us that once we've let the Trojan horse in, the best anyone can do is try to keep the guards from falling asleep.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Stead, D., Corporations, Classrooms and Commercialism. The New York Times, Education Life, January 5, 1997, Section 4A, pp. 30-33, 41-47.

Molnar, A., Giving Kids the Bu$iness: The Commercialization of America's Schools. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.

Parker-Pope, T., Most Ad Executives Say Tobacco Firms Target Children. The Wall Street Journal, Sunday, December 18, 1996, p. B5.