Schoolkids for sale

Celina and Marcus went to Burger King for lunch. Celina ordered a Whopper with cheese, one order of onion rings, and water. There are 19 grams of fat in one order of onion rings. There are 65 grams of fat in the entire meal. Let g represent the number of grams of fat in a Whopper with cheese. Write an equation to find how many grams of fat are in a Whopper with cheese.

It reads like a bad parody, but the above is an actual—and fairly representative—word problem from the McGraw-Hill textbook Mathematics: Applications and Connections. The controversial new math text is in use in Washington state, though not in Seattle schools. Many other forms of advertising, however, are present locally. And there could be lots more coming.

In the fall of 1996, Seattle's school board adopted a policy encouraging school advertising. The policy was reluctantly rescinded months later after heavy public criticism, and the approach since then has been piecemeal. Both new school head Joseph Olshefske and a majority of school board members continue to be supportive of the concept of ads in schools.

Many types of advertising are universal among schools: free doodads like posters and book covers, often with socially redeeming messages to disguise the ad ("McDonald's says . . . stay in school!"). Teachers receive all kinds of "teaching aids," texts, and curricula from self-interested corporations (the Hershey's nutrition curriculum description of where chocolate fits on the food pyramid is particularly amusing.) There literally is no longer sport or uniform wear available without corporate logos on it.

Nationally, one of the issues receiving the most attention is the intense competition between Coke and Pepsi for exclusive district vending contracts. Such contracts frequently have sales quotas tied to the money districts receive, leading to uproars such as the debacle in Colorado Springs recently when administrators urged principals to do everything in their power to sell more Coke. Last fall, despite community opposition, Seattle's school board approved a 10-year, $6.1 million exclusive contract with Coke that includes per-school commissions and incentives based on the amount of cola sold.

This year's other local controversies have included a board move to allow commercial leases on school district property, and the continuing presence in most of the city's middle and high schools of Channel One, a vacuous 12-minute daily feed of McNews and ads that is commonly shown in home rooms and study halls.

Ten years ago, Channel One was the cutting edge in in-school advertising because it was offering something every educator wanted: televisions in classrooms. Now, the Trojan horse is computers, and the next wave is a network called ZapMe!. ZapMe! made its state debut in Edmonds this fall; it's a program that offers schools 15 "free" networked computers whose screens not only show advertising at all times, but encourage students to click on the ads to get more product information. Similar to Channel One's one-channel televisions, ZapMe! computers can be used for Web surfing only with the permanent ads—but, hey, they're computers, and they're free, and districts across the country are taking the plunge. And plenty of other schemes to advertise are cropping up, from selling the naming rights of school gyms to erecting billboards outside and inside schools themselves.

What's wrong with advertising in public schools? There is the argument that school is one of the last non-commercialized spaces left in a child's life, and should be respected as a sanctuary for learning; additionally, some of the advertised products (like flavored sugar water) surely aren't good for kids. But most compelling is the compulsory nature of it. You have school districts raising money by literally selling their kids as an attractive demographic to advertisers. And you have the state in a position of promoting private businesses, and seemingly endorsing them, in an authoritative setting, to impressionable youth.

Against these con- cerns, two arguments are usually marshaled: First, that school districts desperately need the money and resources that corporations and their messages can bring. Second, that such messages are inescapable in the modern world, so why not use them to districts' benefit? The McGraw-Hill math text—featuring product placement for Nike, Gatorade, Barbie, Cocoa Frosted Flakes, Mattel, Disney, Warner Bros., Sony Playstations, Spalding basketballs, Oreos, McDonald's, Topps baseball cards, and many others—is all the more terrifying because it's not advertising. The authors weren't paid to use the corporate examples. The idea is to use relevant examples from students' lives, and the assumption is that only brand names can hold their attention.

Advertising in schools can work one of two ways, neither of them good. On the one hand, corporations can be using the legal mandate for public education to reach a captive, impressionable audience with messages designed to mold purchasing habits for a lifetime: teaching our kids to be good consumers. Or, our cynical, media-savvy youth will learn to regard school as just one more place where someone's trying to sell them something. Schools are, at least in theory, where our future generations learn the skills of critical thinking. The goals of an advertiser are antithetical to the goals of a teacher. Increasingly, our schools are taking the money—at our children's expense.

 
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