Students for Sale
DeRose brushes aside such criticisms. "Every school district of any size in the country wants in on this," he says. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case. Except for the occasional renegade school officials--like the Rhode Island administrator who recently physically removed all the soda machines from his school--most schools seem eager to get on the corporate gravy train. Although a number of educational organizations, including the national PTA and the National Education Association, have endorsed voluntary guidelines to help schools determine which, if any, in-school commercial activities have merit, most educators are unaware of them.
There are a few school districts, however, where parents and students are fighting back. At Berkeley High School last year, the Pepsi-Cola Company offered the school $90,000 and a fancy new electronic scoreboard for the football stadium in exchange for an exclusive vending deal. Meanwhile, Nike approached the school's athletic director with a proposal to provide athletic equipment and uniforms--as long as all student-athletes wore a Nike swoosh on their back. The deals were ultimately scuttled, in large part because of the efforts of a determined 15-year-old sophomore, Sarah Church. Church organized a student-led forum on whether the school should accept the deals, then inspired her classmates to testify against them at school board meetings. "We took a strong stand against selling out students to advertisers," Church says. Today, she is trying to launch a national student movement against in-school advertising.
In June, in neighboring San Francisco, the school board approved the Commercial Free Schools Act, the first measure of its kind in the country. The act bars the district from signing exclusive beverage contracts or adopting educational materials that contain brand names.
But perhaps the most ambitious and successful anticommercialism campaign has been in Seattle. Three years ago, the Seattle school board proposed a far-reaching corporate-sponsorship program that officials predicted would bring in $1 million a year. The proposal caught the attention of Brita Butler-Wall, a teacher-trainer at the University of Seattle and the mother of two children in Seattle schools. "I thought the idea was wacky, since it seems counter to everything schools are supposed to stand for," she says. Butler-Wall contacted a few other parents, and they decided to "go to the mat on the issue." The group, calling itself the Seattle Citizens' Campaign for Commercial-free Schools (CCC), sponsored a series of public meetings on the issue that drew statewide attention. Then they organized a series of "commercialism walk-throughs" of the city's schools, collecting as many examples of already existing commercial material as they could, sending a copy of their findings to the school board.
The CCC also won support from a group not usually involved in educational battles: organized labor. Mike Miller, a local Teamsters activist and father with a son in the public schools, and David Yao, head of the local postal workers' union, presented a resolution condemning the school board's plan to the King County Labor Council, and to their surprise it passed unanimously. "We are opposed to exposing schoolchildren to corporate values in an educational environment where they assume that whatever is presented to them carries the approval of the educational establishment," the resolution read in part. While the city's teachers' union declined to take a position on the commercialism issue, other local unions played an important role in galvanizing opposition.
In March 1997 the school board rescinded the advertising sponsorship policy. Instead, it appointed a school-community task force--members of the CCC--to study the issue and make policy recommendations. Those recommendations, issued last September, call for sharp restrictions on most forms of commercial activities. The task force's final report, though, is still waiting for official approval. In the meantime, the Seattle school board signed its own exclusive soft-drink contract with Coca-Cola, over the strenuous objections of the CCC and others.
Which raises the question: Are opponents of schoolhouse commercialism fighting a losing battle? For now at least, it seems that the corporations have the upper hand. Unless more parents, teachers and legislators start paying attention, consumerism may replace learning as the predominant value in American public education.