CorporateInvolvement In Schools: Time For A More Critical Look
Center for the Analysis ofCommercialism in Education
School of Education
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
PO Box 413
Milwaukee WI 53201
Available on the web at http://www.schoolcommercialism.org/
CORPORATEINVOLVEMENT IN SCHOOLS: TIME FOR A MORE CRITICAL LOOK
by Alex Molnar
A publication of National Association ofState Boards of Education
State Education StandardWinter 2001
desirability ofcorporate involvement in the schools has been a
fundamental assumption offederal, state, and local policymaking for
over twenty years. Although it hasbeen asserted that effective
corporate-school partnerships promote civic andpersonal well-being,
increasing corporate involvement in education has beenjustified
primarily on macro-economic grounds, i.e., as necessary to
increaseAmerican competitiveness in the global economy. This
justification has been sowidely accepted that, at this point, business
is involved in almost everyaspect of public education in the United
example, to anunprecedented degree schools are being integrated into
the advertising andpromotional campaigns for products as diverse as
candy bars and automobiles.Further, public education is itself being
packaged as a product by for-profitcorporations known as “education
management organizations.” Often with the helpof policymakers, these
corporations are aggressively seeking to create aneducational “market”
for the particular “brand” of school they are promoting.Rarely,
however, are the public benefits and costs of for-profit
educationthoroughly and objectively calculated.
effort to use schoolsas a platform for corporate advertising and
propaganda or to create anenvironment supportive of for-profit public
education has not gone entirelyunchallenged. Critics believe that this
barrage of marketing in schools is atbest a distraction and at worst
encourages students to make unhealthy lifestylechoices. Nor are such
criticisms new. In fact, the marketing of products,services, or a
corporation’s point of view to children in schools has evokedvarying
degrees of concern for the better part of a century. Similarly,
recentattempts to create a for-profit public education sector have been
contentious, with manyissues, such as how to hold for-profit firms accountable, still to be resolved.
article will argue thatmany activities described as school-business
partnerships are in fact harmfulto children and undermine the ability
of schools to provide sound academicprograms and promote democratic
civic culture. It concludes that it is now timefor policymakers to take
a more critical look at the purpose and impact of manytypes of
corporate-school relationships and to decide what form of oversight
isnecessary to ensure that public schools continue as an expression of
democraticvalues rather than corporate interests.
A Short History ofCorporate Marketing in Schools
far back as the 1920s,concern about commercial influences in schools
was significant enough to meritthe appointment of a National Education
Association (NEA) committee to studyit. The Committee on Propaganda in
the Schools was charged with determiningwhat propaganda (including
materials from corporations, governments, and otherorganizations) was
being received by America’s schools and what policies orother
mechanisms were in place to deal with it.
committee’s 1929 reportidentified several ways in which commercial
activities might interfere with theacademic programs of schools. For
example, (1) the decentralized nature ofcurriculum development and
approval processes in the U.S. means that eachschool and school
district must depend on its own, often limited, resources forevaluating
the accuracy, fairness, and educational value of each sponsoredmaterial
or program that is offered them; (2) the principle of democraticcontrol
of curriculum content (generally through an elected school board)
isjeopardized by the abundance of unsolicited and unevaluated materials
flowinginto the schools from well-funded outside interests; and (3)
sponsoredmaterials and programs pose a distraction from the
already-crowded course ofstudy required to meet state or local
More recent work suggeststhat the NEA committee’s concerns remain relevant today.2
If anything, efforts to commercializeschools appear to be far more
intense now than in 1929. Spending bycorporations on marketing to
children is at an all-time high.3
Moreover, as part of theiroverall marketing strategy, corporations are
seeking access to schools in anunprecedented diversity of ways.
Commercial messages, invitations to enterstudents in contests,
proposals for exclusive vending contracts with soft drinkbottlers, and
offers of free equipment and services in return for advertisers’access
to students are now commonplace. Educators, parents, and
policymakersall feel commercialism’s impact. The apparent increase in
commercial activitiesis probably the result of both the increase in
marketing to children and in thevulnerability of schools. Schools
experience strong demands for academicimprovement from government
agencies, parents, and the business community, andtheir budgets are
being strained in the attempt to offer a wide variety ofsophisticated
and expensive technology to students.4 These intense external pressuresare often stoked by corporations and used to rationalize commercialized offersof assistance.
the years, manyresearchers have attempted to identify, describe, and
quantify commercial activitiesin schools. Research for the 1929 NEA
report included a survey of 489respondents, mostly city school
officials, to determine what sponsoredmaterials had been received and
what policies or other mechanisms were in placeto deal with them. The
committee also conducted a review of state educationdepartments’ laws
or policies governing the use of such materials, interviewsessions with
groups of teachers, school visits, and an examination ofadvertisements
for sponsored materials.
Using Free Materials in theClassroomand a similar pamphlet, Choosing Free Materials for Use in the Schools, werepublished
in the 1950s by professional associations to assist teachers in theuse
of sponsored materials in their classrooms. Both guides warned teachers
againstuncritical acceptance of sponsored materials, but also
recommended that theynot reject such offerings outright.5
Hucksters in the Classroom
describes the results ofthe inclusion of four questions related to
teachers’ use of“industry[-sponsored] materials” in the 1976-77 annual
membership survey of theNational Education Association. The responses
of 1,250 teachers suggested thatapproximately half of U.S. teachers
used sponsored materials and indicated thata wide variety of commercial
interests were represented, including banks,utilities, manufacturers,
and food processors.6
One, the 12-minutecurrent events program that carries two minutes of
commercials, was launched in1990 and is widely considered the
bellwether of the recent expansion ofcommercial influences in the
schools. As such, it has been the subject ofseveral studies on the
extent of its use, its educational efficacy, and thefinancial value of
the service and equipment provided. Roy Fox, Mark CrispinMiller, and
Hugh Rank have all published critiques of Channel One’s content.7 Channel One in thePublic Schools: Widening the Gaps
found that schools with highconcentrations of poor students are almost
twice as likely to use Channel Oneas schools serving more wealthy
Bradley Greenberg and Jeffrey Brand found that students whowatched
Channel One were more likely to express materialist values such
as“Money is everything,” or “A nice car is more important than school.”9
Another study estimatedthe costs of instructional time taken up by
Channel One’s current affairscontent and its advertising content for
each state. The authors estimate that,nationwide, the annual cost of
instructional time taken up by the two minutesof commercials broadcast
on Channel One is approximately $300 million.10
Captive Kids: A Report onCommercial Pressures on Kids at School outlined various commercializing activities inschools. Captive Kids
provided reviews and ratings of over 100 sponsoredmaterials and
contests, included a listing of national education organizationsand
their positions on school commercialism, and provided a comparison
ofChannel One and CNN classroom news programs. An earlier report, SellingAmerica’s Kids: Commercial Pressures on Kids of the Nineties, describedchildren’s experiences with commercialism in and out of school.11
Commercial Activities inSchools,issued
by the U.S. General Accounting Office in September 2000 found that
19states had some sort of regulation in place regarding commercial
activities inschools, including some statutes that are intended to
Tracking the Growth ofSchoolhouse Commercialism 1990-2000
Center for the Analysisof Commercialism in Education (CACE) has, since
1998, released an annual reporton schoolhouse commercialism trends. Sponsored Schools and CommercializedClassrooms, identified seven areas of commercial activity in schools andtracked their prevalence over eight years (1990-1997). Cashing In on Kidsfollowed the same seven areas in the academic years 1997-98 and 1998-99, and Commercialism@School.comdescribed eight areas for the 1999-2000 academic year.13
Data forall three CACE reports were derived by conducting database
searches of thepopular, business, advertising/marketing, and education
presses for articlesdescribing each category of commercial activity.
The frequency of relevantcitations offers an approximation of the
frequency with which a particularactivity can be found in schools. The
eight categories, and the percent changein number of citations
associated with each category between 1990 and1999-2000, follow:
1.Sponsorship of Programs andActivities—Corporationspaying
for or subsidizing school events and/or one-time activities,
includingcontests, in return for the right to associate their name with
the events andactivities.
Duracell/NSTA InventionChallenge for grades 6-12 invites schoolchildren
to “design and build workingdevices powered by Duracell batteries.”
Percent increase incitations between 1990 and 1999-2000: + 248%
between schoolsand corporations that give corporations the exclusive
right to sell and promotetheir goods and/or services in the school or
Example: In 1997 Colorado SpringsDistrict 11 signed a 10-year exclusive vending agreement potentially worth $8million with Coca-Cola.
Percent increasein citations between 1990 and 1999-2000: + 1,384%
programs thatprovide money, goods, or services to a school or school
district when itsstudents, parents, or staff engage in a specified
Through its “Book It!”reading incentive program, Pizza Hut offers
school children who meet theirreading goals a free Pizza Hut pizza.
Percent increase in citations between 1990 and1999-2000: + 231%
4. Appropriation ofSpace—The
allocation of school space such as scoreboards, rooftops,
bulletinboards, walls, and textbooks on which corporations may place
corporate logosand/or advertising messages.
Example: Cover Concepts offersschools free textbook covers featuring advertisements from the cover’ssponsors.
Percent increase in citations between 1990 and1999-2000: + 539%
5. Sponsored EducationalMaterials—Materials supplied by corporations and/or industry associationsthat claim to have an instructional content.
Corporate Example: Mobil Corporation sponsoreda lesson plan series called “Critical Thinking about Critical Issues.”
Industry AssociationExample:The Polystyrene Packaging Council produced the Plastics and theEnvironment Sourcebook.
Percent increase in citations between 1990 and1999-2000: + 1,875%
6. Electronic Marketing—Theprovision
of electronic programming and/or equipment in return for the right
toadvertise to students and/or their families and community members.
In an effort that recentlyfailed, the ZapMe! corporation provided
ad-bearing web access and computerequipment to schools in exchange for
the rights to collect student web-usedata, to advertise to students,
and to use school facilities after school hoursfor corporate purposes.
Percent increase in citations between 1990 and1999-2000: + 139%
7. Privatization—Managementof schools or school programs by private for-profit corporations or othernon-public entities.
Example: The Leona Group manages 34charter schools in Michigan and Arizona, in return for a management fee.
Percent increase incitations between 1990 and 1999-2000: + 3,206%
In the 1999-2000 report,CACE added an eighth category, Fundraising.
activity conducted or program participatedin to raise money for school
operations or extracurricular programs.Fundraising activities vary
widely in their levels of corporate involvement.Because 1999-2000 was
the first year in which database searches were conductedon the topic,
no data are available for comparison between years. However,fundraising
appears to be the most widespread commercial activity, with thelargest
number of citations of any category in 1999-2000.
Opposition toCommercializing Schools
expressed byparent, professional, and religious groups about the impact
of commercialism onstudents have increased in recent years, and those
concerns have resulted inregulatory efforts at the local, state, and
federal levels. Parent and communitygroups passing resolutions and
policy directives on the subject include theNational PTA, the Wisconsin
PTA, the Alabama children’s advocacy groupObligation, and the Seattle
Citizen’s Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools. Anumber of professional
organizations such as the NEA, the American Associationof School
Administrators, the Association for Supervision and
CurriculumDevelopment, and the National Council for the Social Studies
have developedvoluntary guidelines to help educators determine which,
if any, of theseactivities have merit.14 The American Dental
Association has decriedexclusive vending agreements between schools and
soft drink companies, and theAmerican Academy of Pediatrics has
expressed concern about commercialism’simpact on children’s health.15
In 1999 the Southern BaptistConvention passed a resolution calling on
school administrators and parents toremove Channel One from their
and federal electedofficials have taken notice of this response to
commercial incursions in theclassroom. For example, Wisconsin State
Representative Marlin Schneiderproposed a total ban on advertising in
schools in 1997.17 Faced withstrong opposition from
educators as well as corporations, Schneider thenproposed a less
expansive bill that would have barred schools from signingexclusive
agreements with soft drink bottlers.18 Although
neitherversion of the bill was adopted, Schneider persisted,
introducing newlegislation in 1999 that would prohibit school boards
from entering intoexclusive advertising contracts or contracts for
telecommunications goods orservices that require students to be exposed
to advertising.19 Thebill stalled in committee.
1999, the CaliforniaState Assembly passed two bills on the topic of
commercialism in schools.Assembly Bill 116 bans in textbooks any
“materials, including illustrations,that provide unnecessary exposure
to a commercial brand name, product, orcorporate or company logo.” The
second bill requires that the contract bedebated and entered into at a
noticed public hearing.20
in 1999, the BetterNutrition for School Children Act was introduced in
the U.S. House and Senateto prohibit companies from using a legal
loophole to distribute free softdrinks and other non-nutritive snacks
during school lunch periods.21The bill was not passed before the 106th
Congress ended. In 2000,the Student Privacy Protection Act was
proposed, which would have requiredwritten notification to parents of
any commercial research being conducted intheir children’s schools. The
notice would have to include: what informationabout their children will
be solicited; whether the solicited information couldlead to
identification of the child; who will have access to the informationand
for what purpose; how much class time will be spent on the activity;
andwhat the school will gain from participating. The bills would also
haverequired written permission from the parents before a child would
be allowed toparticipate in the research activity.22
Schools as a Product
1990s were a period ofrapid expansion for what is now called the
“education industry.” One of thefastest growing sections of that
industry is that of companies managing publicschools, particularly
charter schools, for profit. Companies have alwaysprofited from selling
necessary supplies to schools, but the concept of makinga profit from
the administration and practice of K-12 public education itselfis new.
Industry watchers have coined the term “education
managementorganization,” or EMO, to describe these companies, and the
comparison to HMOsseems accurate to both proponents and critics of the
of the powerfulputative benefits of market-based education reforms is
the alleged inherentaccountability of the market, which can be
summarized as “If the product isn’tgood, the customer won’t buy it.”
While this logic is simple enough, the worldof public education is
complex, and that complexity ensures that the wisdom ofattempting to
create a for-profit public education market is by no meansself-evident.
A few examples illustrate the practical and policy problemsraised by
allowing EMOs to run public schools.
Austin, Texas, moverscleared out the premises of the Academy of Austin,
a for-profit charter, in themiddle of the night in November 1999.
According to the Austin American-Statesman,children
arrived at school the next morning only to find the classrooms
nearlyempty and their teachers packing up the remaining supplies. The
school’s Michigan-basedmanagement company, Charter School
Administrative Services, did not offer anexplanation but simply
informed the Texas Education Agency (TEA) that theschool was being
closed. A spokesman for the TEA told the newspaper that thestate
“cannot compel charter schools to complete the semester or the
reports from acrossthe country indicate that parents, community
members, and the media findgetting information on the operations of
some for-profit charter schools nearlyimpossible. In Michigan, a survey
conducted by Booth Newspapers, for example,found that a majority of
charters in the state failed to comply withinformation requests filed
under the state Freedom of Information Act. Aftermaking requests for
basic data such as teachers’ names and salaries, thenewspaper group
received partial or no responses from 94 of 176 charter schools(53
percent, compared with a 5 percent noncompliance rate for a sample of
87traditional public schools). According to the Associated Press, most
of therefusals to respond were based on the argument that as a private
employer, anEMO does not have to disclose information about its
employees to the public.25
generous flexibility insome charter school laws allows conflicts of
interest that would not bepermissible in traditional public schools. In
Ohio, the law permits members ofa charter school’s governing authority
(the school’s private board ofdirectors) to have a financial stake in
the school, to bypass the competitivebidding process to give contracts
to friends or relatives, and to skip criminalbackground checks.26
Where We Go from Here
the recent increasein public scrutiny of some corporate activities in
schools, current trendssuggest it is quite possible that by mid-century
American public education willbe transformed from an expression of
democratic values into a system whosestructure and functions are
determined by mercantile criteria. This need not bethe case. In some
countries, children are already being protected fromcommercial
influences in and outside of school. Moreover, Sweden has proposed
aEuropean Union-wide ban on all television advertising aimed at
children in andoutside of school. Sweden has had such a ban for a
decade. Denmark and Greecehave also placed restrictions on TV ads
directed at children. Unfortunately, tothis point in America,
policymakers have devoted much less time to thinkingthrough the
constraints that may be necessary on corporate involvement in
theschools than to considering ways to expand school-business
partnerships. Thiswill have to change if we wish to retain and
strengthen a public educationsystem that serves the best interests of
children and that promotes democraticcivic values.
are examples ofthe kinds of questions that can be asked by state and
local policymakers whobelieve that commercial and corporate involvement
in schools must be subject topublic scrutiny and must always be in the
interest of our democratic values andthe best educational standards and
• Does the board have a policy on commercializing activitiesin the schools? If not, should one be developed?
• What criteria should be applied to assess whether amarketing activity is allowed in schools?
• What impact does marketing in schools have on academicstandards?
corporate-sponsored educational materials subject to thesame review as
other instructional materials such as text books? Should theybe?
• What is the cost of accepting marketing and advertising inthe schools in terms of teacher time, use of facilities, etc.?
• Have the public costs of for-profit management schemes beenthoroughly and objectively calculated?
• What are the respective roles of state boards of educationand local school boards in addressing these questions?
the realm of publiceducation, the translation of citizens into
consumers and students into acommercial resource to be harvested for
the benefit of private interests wouldalter the character of not only
America’s schools but American civic culture aswell. Whether a
transformation this profound is to be embraced or rejected is asubject
worthy of a far-reaching and vigorous public debate. State boardmembers
should be key people in discussing and deciding these issues.
Molnar is professorand director of the Center for the Analysis of
Commercialism in Education(CACE) at the University of
Wisconsin–Milwaukee. The Center’s website can befound at
1. NationalEducation Association (NEA), Report of the Committee on Propaganda in theSchools (Washington, DC: NEA, 1929).
2. See, forexample, Alex Molnar, Giving Kids the Business: The Commercialization ofAmerica’s Schools (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996); and Derron Boyles, AmericanEducation and Corporations: The Free Market Goes to School (New York, NY:Garland, 1998).
3. EliLambert, Leah Plunkett, and Trish Wotowiec, Just the Facts about Advertisingand Marketing to Children, which can be found online at the Center for aNew American Dream’s website at http://www.newdream.org/campaign/kids/facts.html.
4. See, forexample, CEO Forum on Education and Technology, From Pillars to Progress(Washington, DC: CEO Forum on Education and Technology, 1997); and Achieve,Inc., National Education Summit Briefing Book (Washington, DC: Achieve,Inc., 1999).
5.Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), Using FreeMaterials in the Classroom (Washington, DC: ASCD, 1953); and AmericanAssociation of School Administrators (AASA), Choosing Free Materials for Usein the Schools (Washington, DC: AASA, 1955).
6. SheilaHarty, Hucksters in the Classroom: A Review of Industry Propaganda in theSchools (Washington, DC: Center for the Study of Responsive Law, 1979).
7. HughRank, “Channel One/Misconceptions Three,” English Journal 81 (4): 31-32;Hugh Rank, “Channel One: Asking the Wrong Questions,” Educational Leadership51(4): 52-55; Mark Crispin Miller, How to Be Stupid: The Teachings ofChannel One
(Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and CurriculumDevelopment,
1997); Roy Fox, “Manipulated Kids: Teens Tell How Ads InfluenceThem,” Educational Leadership 53 (1): 77-79; and Roy Fox, “FlavorCrystals as Brain Food: Unplug TV Commercials in School,” Phi Delta Kappan79: 326-327.
8. MichaelMorgan, Channel One in the Public Schools: Widening the Gaps (Oakland,CA: UNPLUG, 1993).
9. BradleyS. Greenberg and Jeffrey E. Brand, “Channel One: But What about theAdvertising?” Educational Leadership 51: 5-58.
10. AlexMolnar and Max B. Sawicky, The Hidden Costs of Channel One: Estimates forthe 50 States (Milwaukee, WI.: Center for the Analysis of Commercialism inEducation, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, 1998).
11.Consumers Union Education Services, Selling America’s Kids: Commercial Pressureson Kids of the Nineties (Yonkers, NY: Consumers Union, 1990); and ConsumersUnion Education Services, Captive Kids: A Report on Commercial Pressures onKids at School (Yonkers, NY: Consumers Union, 1995).
12. U.S.General Accounting Office, Commercial Activities in Schools,GAO/HEHS-00-156 (Washington, DC: U.S. General Accounting Office, 2000).
13. All ofCACE’s reports may be found on the CACE website (http://www.schoolcommercialism.org).
14. Many ofthese guidelines are posted on the CACE website’s Resources page (http://www.uwm.edu/Dept/CACE/resources.html).
15. T.Keung Hui, “Dentists Frown on Schools’ Soda Deal,” (Raleigh, NC) Newsand Observer,
19 October 2000; and see American Academy of Pediatricsresolutions,
“Children, Adolescents, and Advertising” (RE9504),
“Children,Adolescents, and Television” (RE9538), and “Media Education”
16.Southern Baptist Convention, “Resolution No. 8 on Channel One” (adopted June1999).
17. See thelegislation proposed in the Wisconsin Legislature (1997 IntroducedProposals: AB 685) at http://folio.legis.state.wi.us.
18. ReneSanchez, “A Corporate Seat in Public Classrooms; Marketing Efforts BringRevenue, Opposition,” Washington Post, 9 March 1998.
19. See thelegislation proposed in the Wisconsin Legislature (Assembly Bill 103) athttp://www.legis.state.wi.us/1999/data/AB103.pdf.
20. SeeCalifornia Legislature, AB 117—Enrolled [legislation] (1999), availableathttp://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/bill/asm/ab_0101-0150/ab_117_bill_19990902_enrolled.html.
21.“Congress May Ban Soda from School Lunch Programs,” Food & Drink Weekly,17 May 1999.
22. Sen.Richard Shelby press release, “Sens. Dodd and Shelby Offer Student PrivacyProtection Amendment,” 9 May 2000.
23. AlexMolnar, Jennifer Morales, and Alison Vander Wyst, Profiles of For-ProfitEducation Management Companies, 1999-2000 (Milwaukee, WI: Center forEducation Research, Analysis, and Innovation, University ofWisconsin–Milwaukee, 2000).
24. A.Phillips Brooks, “Austin Charter School Clears Out,” AustinAmerican-Statesman, 2 December 1999.
25. “SurveyFinds Majority of Charter Schools Fail to Comply with FOIA Request,” AssociatedPress State and Local Wire, 26 March 2000.
26. DennisJ. Willard and Doug Oplinger, “Education, Safety Left Behind in Ohio’s Rush toOpen Academies,” Akron (Ohio) Beacon-Journal, 12 December 1999.