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October 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 2

Perspectives / Undue Influence?

      The lunchtime topic was commercials in schools. Someone asked whether anyone had had experience with Channel One. Although several ASCD staff members knew of schools using it, one of our project assistants, class of 1990, had had four years of experience viewing it.
      Clare recalled that when her high school introduced the idea, the parents called a meeting to protest commercials in the school. The school convinced the parents that this partnership would bring in some much-needed equipment—like a television set for each classroom, two VCRs for the school, and a satellite link. In exchange, all the school needed to do was play 12 minutes of Channel One programming and 2 minutes of ads each day.
      For four years, Clare and her friends were a target audience. A lot of kids did their homework during this time or tuned out in other ways. She and her friends scorned the broadcast, believing they were being talked down to, but funny thing, she can still sing the entire Starburst commercial. "The news changed every day, but the ads didn't," she explained.
      Claire attended a Catholic school, which prompted her to muse, "If the commercials were for religions, they wouldn't be allowed in public schools."
      To some extent, commercials have always been in schools. Consider the yearbook crammed with ads for local establishments or the school events sponsored by area businesses. Such involvement has been seen as solid support, not undue influence. The separation between commerce and school used to be more pronounced inside the classroom, however. In class, students examined viewpoints, learned facts, practiced skills, reflected on values, started to think for themselves. No ads allowed, unless students were studying creative writing.
      Today, however, many lines are being blurred. One of them is the boundary between the private interest and the public school. Although some connections seem innocuous and some even helpful in these days when schools are so strapped for funding, the question is, Where can and should schools draw the line?
      Much commercial involvement in schools comes with a price tag. For delivering an audience of 8 million teens, Channel One commands $185,000 for a 30-second ad. Advertisers reap the name recognition and the resultant sales. But what do kids gain?
      Looking closely at the content of Channel One news, William Hoynes found that Channel One shapes its news especially for a teen audience (Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, Summer 1998). Not quite what you see on the six o'clock news, items are presented in lightning-fast sound bites of opposing views—"dramatic conflict between two enduring camps," Hoynes calls it. Complex topics like the federal budget or a commitment to send troops to Bosnia are presented as having two sides: pro or con, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative. Although the teenage anchors represent different ethnic backgrounds, only the hippest kids play this role. Indeed, part of what Channel One sells is youth culture. And the other part is commercial products.
      Because today's kids are "commercialized," many kids, especially the youngest ones, see nothing at all wrong with viewing ads at school, according to Consumer Reports (September 1998). Savvy about discriminating between the cool brands and the knock-offs, children less wisely influence their parents to buy things that are bad for them or that they don't need. When there is so much to learn in school, is there really time for passive, uncritical viewing of commercials? Every school should at least ask itself whether the equipment is worth the trade-off.
      This month's theme issue addresses the question, Whose Schools? It is a complex question, with many sides, and the place of commercials is only one angle (p. 12). A larger consideration is the role of businesses in running schools (p. 44). Our authors grapple with other questions: Should tax dollars be given to parents through vouchers so that they can pay their children's tuition at private schools (pp. 36 and 40)? Will charter school initiatives spur public schools to improve (pp. 48 and 55)? And, How can we best communicate with the multiple publics who own our schools (pp. 18 and 24)?
      The big questions remain unanswered: Can public schools find the public support they need without having to resort to private funding? And, Can we accept financial support without succumbing to undue influences?

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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