Backlash Brews Against Advertising in Schools

Seattle may rescind policy to deck halls with firms' logos

As PTA president, Brita Butler-Wall visited her daughter's public school in Seattle hundreds of times without noticing the corporate logos on posters in the halls, the gym, and the cafeteria.

The commercialism caught her attention, however, after the school board decided to solicit advertising in the city's middle and high schools.

Like a handful of other school districts around the country, Seattle hoped that corporate sponsorship, through paid displays such as billboards in the halls and logos on scoreboards, would be an answer to financial woes. Instead, the policy sparked a heated debate about commercialism in the classroom - one that comes to a head tonight, when the school board is expected to rescind its original decision.

The parent-led backlash in Seattle points to a heightened awareness about what some observers call the "creeping phenomenon" of commercialism in schools. The idea of allowing, or even inviting, corporations to sponsor educational activities may seem tempting to cash-strapped districts, but a growing chorus of educators, parents, and students say it should not be seen as the solution.

"Commercialism is now being pitched as a fiscal solution," says Marianne Manilov of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, an advocacy group in Oakland, Calif. "But to say that we're going to bring you Mountain Dew on your walls, and that's going to save the school from fiscal crisis, is preposterous and outrageous."

Businesses, on the other hand, say they provide a needed service, filling in when the community is unwilling or unable to help the schools. The partnership, they say, is part of a trend to increase the business community's ties to local education.

For Seattle school-board member Don Nielsen, who voted to invite advertisers into the Seattle schools, the original decision was a "no-brainer." The district is facing a $10 million cutback for the third year in a row. If exposing students to advertising helps keep their educational programs in place, so be it, he argues.

But to Ms. Butler-Wall, the policy "essentially turns over access to kids to large corporations." She sees "an inherent conflict between the goal of the corporation and the goal of the educator."

Miguel Bocanegra, a senior at Seattle's Middle College High School, agrees. "It's creating a hostile environment in a community space that's supposed to be for learning." He and other students considered staging a student walkout in protest.

The reaction in Seattle has been dramatically different than in Colorado Springs, Colo., where more than three years ago the school district began selling ads on school buses, in hallways, and even in the district's annual report.

"We've had such difficult financial times that this community seems to appreciate our being more businesslike," says Tracy Cooper, who oversees the district's advertising program. Revenue from ads - which sell for between $1,500 and $12,000 - has allowed schools there to buy computers and band instruments or supplement teacher training, she says.

But it has not solved the district's financial problems. "Out of a multimillion-dollar budget, it comes down to a couple thousand dollars per school," says Alex Molnar, author of "Giving Kids the Business." "That's peanuts. And it's certainly nothing compared to what the schools give up, which is their public-service mission and moral standing."

Recent studies suggest that students often view ads at school more positively than ads seen other places. They also presume that the school endorses those products. "You have a captive audience and a relatively ad-free environment," says Mr. Molnar. "If you advertise in schools, it carries with it an air of legitimacy."

Despite their possible victory in Seattle, activist parents and students say they have only begun to address the issue. Through the new Citizens Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools, Butler-Wall and 30 other Seattle parents are taking aim at other types of commercialism they've discovered. They want to establish a review policy for corporate-sponsored curriculum and get rid of Channel One, the 12-minute program that broadcasts news and commercials directly into classrooms.

For Lisa Bond, president of the citywide Parent-Teacher-Student Association, a school banking program in place since 1925 needs a closer look.

"The goal is to teach kids the value of saving," she says of the program, in which a local bank opens accounts for students and offers small rewards for saving. "I banked with them when I was a kid. But for the first time, I became aware that we're handing out stuff with the bank logo all over it."

"As commercialism comes more and more into schools, you're going to see more of this type of reaction," Ms. Manilov says. "It's reaching a boiling point."

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