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Classrooms for sale

Schools need money. Big Business has it. The twain now meet, but are our kids paying the price?

By Nadya Labi

April 12, 1999
Web posted at: 12:09 p.m. EDT (1609 GMT)

TIME magazine

Solve this problem: The staff and students of School District 11 in Colorado Springs, Colo., drank 30,000 cases of Coke beverages last year. District 11 has a 10-year, $8 million contract with the soft-drink company that calls for the yearly consumption of 1.68 million bottles of Coke products. If a case contains 24 bottles, which answer is correct? A) District 11 met its goal, and its students will sing back-up to Aretha Franklin in a new ad campaign. B) District 11 is 960,000 bottles in the red. C) Students should drink lots more Coke.

The best answer is B, but a District 11 administrator chose C. "If 35,439 staff and students buy one Coke product every other day for a school year," wrote John Bushey in a September missive to area principals, "we will double the required quota." His advice: allow Coke products in class and place vending machines in easily accessible areas. "Location, location, location is the key," he wrote, signing his memo "the Coke Dude."

Schools need money. Students have plenty of it to spend: $72 billion for all kids through high school, according to the most recent figures from Consumers Union. Those twin economic pressures have led to a disturbing trend on school grounds. In the past nine months, public school exclusivity deals with cola companies have soared 300%, to a record 150. And that's just the most obvious signal that schools are open for business. Calvin Klein models pout on the covers of textbooks; homecoming may be sponsored by Dr Pepper; Taco Bell dishes up burritos at a school cafeteria near you; and that new overhead projector may be just one company's way of saying thanks--for eating Campbell's soup.

Commercialism in classrooms has become so rampant that last week a California education committee voted to restrict the use of brand names in taxpayer-funded textbooks. Parents were upset about a McGraw-Hill math textbook that is filled with references to products like Volkswagen automobiles, Jif peanut butter and Beanie Babies. McGraw-Hill representatives point out that the company receives no compensation for mentioning the products, which are used simply to get kids' attention. "The practice of using real-life examples is a technique that's been around for 12 to 15 years," says Roger Rogalin, president of the publishing company's school division. "We live in a branded society, and these are the things kids are talking about."

The product placements in textbooks do seem innocent of any overt commercial intent. Still, if you think Toys "R" Us and MTV are the only places where kids are being trained as consumers, take a walk through any elementary school or high school. Those splashy book covers? Chances are they're distributed by Cover Concepts, a company that sells advertising space on book covers to companies like Nestle and Calvin Klein. That new weight-lifting machine? The school may participate in any of the incentive programs run by General Mills, Campbell's soup or AT&T. Schools earn points for every box top, soup label or long-distance phone call--which can then be redeemed for athletic and educational equipment. Or the school may be flush with prize money won in a contest sponsored by Chips Ahoy!, which asked students to confirm that there really are 1,000 chips in each bag, or Kellogg's, which had kids make sculptures out of Rice Krispies and melted marshmallows. "Is it proper for public institutions to become salespeople and build brand loyalty?" asks Andrew Hagelshaw, senior program director at the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education in Oakland, Calif. "Advertisers realize that schools are the perfect place to develop new markets. Kids can't switch the channel."

That's literally true in the case of ZapMe! Corp., which gives schools a free ride on the information superhighway, providing high-speed PCs, Internet access, laser printers and technical support. The catch? Students must use the computers for a minimum of four hours daily, while staring at a 2-in. x 4-in. billboard of rotating ads. Students earn "ZapPoints" that can be redeemed at an e-commerce mall. "There's a huge gap between what schools need and what they can afford," says Frank Vigil, president of the San Ramon-based company. "We want to provide the solution." He has signed up 5,000 schools in his first four months of marketing.

School resistance to these kinds of ventures has been steadily worn down, ever since Channel One began offering schools free video equipment in return for showing kids a daily TV newscast filled with commercials. Now some companies are allowed into schools to do their market research. Noggin, an interactive TV network created by Nickelodeon and the Children's Television Network, meets with more than 300 students at a New Jersey school during lunch and recess for the express purpose of finding out "what sparks kids." To thank Watchung School for its cooperation, the network has "contributed" $7,000 worth of keyboards. Education Market Resources conducts focus groups in schools on behalf of Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's, Mattel and advertising giant Leo Burnett. "We are strictly a kids' market-research firm," says Bob Reynolds, president of the Kansas-based company. "We never promote or market goods." But the information it collects is provided to other companies that then promote and market their own goods.

Secretary of Education Richard Riley is fond of saying, "Better education is everybody's business." In Plymouth, Mich., they take that slogan to heart. District administrators are considering auctioning off school names to the highest-bidding corporation. No takers yet, but it could be the ultimate product placement: imagine your kid one day graduating from McDonald's Middle School and heading off to Coke High.

--With reporting by Richard Woodbury/Denver, Melissa August/Washington and Maggie Sieger/Chicago

MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: April 19, 1999

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