The March 14 announcement by the Coca-Cola Company that it is scaling back its aggressive marketing strategy in public schools is a clear victory for opponents of schoolhouse commercialism. But it’s unlikely that it will do much in the long run to halt the flow of sugary caffeinated drinks into the hands of schoolchildren. According to one soft-drink-industry insider, Coke has so little control over its independent bottlers and distributors that it couldn’t turn off the school spigot even if it wanted to. “Local bottlers can’t afford to turn down the contracts with schools, because they know a competitor will step right in–and Atlanta [Coca-Cola headquarters] knows this too,” the industry expert told me. Executives at five large Coca-Cola bottling companies all said in interviews that they would continue to sign exclusive contracts with local schools if the schools still want them.
And want them they do. The sad reality is that public school officials are so thoroughly addicted to the cheap fix of soda money that they’ve become a chief ally of the soft-drink industry and a driving force behind school commercialization. In Ohio recently, local school officials defied a state order to stop peddling soda and candy to students while breakfast and lunch are being served (a violation of federal law) because it would have cut into their profits. The state is now threatening to withhold federal money from the schools. And in Maryland, school administrators and organizations like the National Association of Secondary School Principals joined forces with the bottlers, the vending machine lobby and companies like Channel One and Frozen to squash a bill aimed at limiting commercialism in Maryland public schools.
The measure–The Captive Audience/Stop Commercialism in Schools Act of 2001–would have required school boards to ban commercial advertising in schools, restrict soda and candy sales and prohibit the purchase of textbooks with commercial logos. “The lobbyists kicked my ass,” said Democratic State Senator Paul Pinsky, the measure’s chief author. Pinsky noted that his bill went down to defeat one day after Coke’s announced policy changes and only after Coke lobbyists had checked back with the home office on how to proceed.
A similar scenario is shaping up in California, where a bill that would effectively ban sales of soda and junk food in state schools is facing opposition from school officials and the California-Nevada Soft Drink Association. Ironically, the measure was drawn up in cooperation with leading child nutrition experts and school nutrition directors, who increasingly find themselves on the opposite side of school-health issues from their bosses.
Through contracts with Coke and Pepsi, some schools are raising as much as $100,000 a year, money that pays for things like band uniforms, field trips, team sports and computer rewiring. But in exchange schools become indentured to the corporations. Typically, the contracts require that schools sell a set quota of soft drinks each year (with cash incentives for selling more). This transforms schools from the status of being mere custodians of vending machines into active sales agents for soda. In Colorado Springs in 1998, for example, school officials sent teachers a letter urging them to allow students to drink Coke in class and suggesting that they keep soda machines on twenty-four hours a day [see Manning, “Students for Sale,” September 27, 1999].
There can be no solution to the commercialization of public education until public schools are adequately and equitably funded. The Bush Administration will offer little help. Education Secretary Rod Paige signed a $5 million, five-year contract with Coca-Cola while superintendent of the Houston public schools and has proposed no solutions to the school funding crisis.
Consequently, parents and community activists should encourage local school boards to find other solutions to their budget problems. One obvious solution is higher taxes, an option that school districts are loath to propose. But as Andy Hagelshaw, the director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, points out, none of the approximately 250 exclusive cola contracts in effect nationally pay out more than $10 to $15 extra per pupil per year, less in bigger school districts. Surely, paying $10 a year more in school taxes is a good investment if it helps eliminate corporate hucksters and exploitation in schools. There are other funding alternatives as well, many of which the center helps schools adopt and implement: For example, instead of relying on the soda subsidy, many school districts are negotiating beneficial arrangements with smaller local businesses that contain no advertising or commercialism. Nationally, the Algebra Project, which produces a math curriculum and provides teacher training to urban schools, has accepted corporate underwriters who receive nothing in return except a brief mention in an annual report.
The failure of educators to think critically about the impact of school commercialism on the quality of schools is a terrible ethical lapse. It’s time for the education establishment to think twice before it sells out its students to the highest bidder.