Flap erupts over ads on school websites

Critics decry the commercialism, but schools can't afford sites without the ads.

When students at Adams Memorial Middle School log on to the school's website, they can check their homework assignment, e-mail their teacher,... and find the man of their dreams.

That last is thanks to an ad for Matchmaker.com that pops up along with the Massachusetts school's Vietnam War page.

Another ad touts: "Name yourself president. Start your own club or join one." A click to the site reveals a variety of message boards, with topics that include bestiality, incest, and spouse swapping.

"Most parents would justifiably find that completely outrageous," says Eric Brown, a spokesman for the Center for a New American Dream in Washington.

Adams students are not the only ones being pitched to from their schools' official websites. Footing the bill for sites that schools say they can't afford is the latest attempt by advertisers to enter the classroom. And it's not just the racier ads that have outraged critics. Some parents and anticonsumer groups consider the sites an extension of the school and question the appropriateness of Amazon.com or Gap hawking goods while children are supposed to be learning.

While no marketing group can say how many ad-adorned school websites exist, a perusal of the major providers shows the numbers to be in the thousands - and growing daily. Some contend that children quickly learn to ignore the ads, but others are pushing for more defined regulation.

The ads are an unwanted, but usually unavoidable, add-on to free websites offered by providers like Tripod.com or Lycos, its parent company. Teachers and webmasters who take advantage of the sites don't like the ads, but say it's the only way they can reach their students online.

"I would prefer not to have ads on my teacher page at all, but hosting costs money, and this was the only way I could get a web page for free," says Neil Sandham, a Calgary, Alberta, teacher who uses a Tripod.com site. "I have no budget to pay for this site."

Only way to afford a site

His complaint is common.

"Schools are under tremendous pressure to integrate technology into programs, whether it is worthwhile or not," says Alex Molnar, director of the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education (CACE) at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "But they lack the resources to do the technological things they are asked to do."

That, along with a culture that encourages friendly relationships with business, has eroded barriers between public institutions and private interests, he says.

The same ads on the Adams school site top other Tripod.com-provided school and classroom sites around the globe. The Learning Network, the largest supplier of educational websites, and Highwired.com also finance school websites with ads, though they try to screen theirs for appropriateness. They also make money by offering online stores and shopping malls.

Some school districts and states are even getting into the online advertising business. The New York City Board of Education in 2000 approved a plan to create its own Internet service and a website that will carry corporate advertising. The hope is to raise enough money to buy laptop computers for all New York eighth-grade students.

And the state of Florida endorsed an online shopping site to benefit schools in 1999 when then-Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher launched the Florida Education Shopping Mall. More than 350 businesses offer to give a percentage of online purchases to a consortium of education foundations.

Web companies like Tripod.com and Myschoolonline.com are particularly tempting to schools since they give teachers tools to compose web pages and provide links to maps, encyclopedias, and dictionaries.

Lycos gives few answers when asked why it places adult-oriented ads on sites for minors. "Nothing in life is foolproof," says Dorianne Almann, Lycos public relations director. "There are going to be some ads that might be better targeted to another page."

Ms. Almann says all Lycos Web pages come with ads, but webmasters can choose from specific categories such as entertainment or sports.

Stricter regulations?

Opponents to advertising in schools continue to lobby for stricter regulations forbidding school advertising. But even when school districts prohibit online advertising, the Internet is so expansive that school authorities have a hard time enforcing it.

In Florida's Pinellas County, for example, even though the school district forbids online advertising, East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs has a wrestling page through Tripod.com. The wrestling page is linked with the main school Web page, which is linked to the school district site. One banner ad on the wrestling site promotes an online casino based in Antigua.

To be sure, some teachers say government restrictions may not be necessary. Like many adults, students are ignoring online banner ads. The Adams Middle School Web master did an informal survey of students and found most hated the ads.

But some critics say the line should be legally drawn excluding online ads. Otherwise, they argue, the commercialization of youths will continue to escalate.

"In the beginning when there were ads on textbook covers, people said, 'What's the big deal?' " Mr. Brown says. "But we end up sliding down the slippery slopes where we are subjecting [children] to Matchmaker.com."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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