CorporateInvolvement In Schools: Time For A More Critical Look



Alex Molnar


Center for the Analysis ofCommercialism in Education

School of Education

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

PO Box 413

Milwaukee WI 53201



Winter 2001





Available on the web at


by Alex Molnar

A publication of National Association ofState Boards of Education

State Education StandardWinter 2001



The 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 States.


For 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.


The 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.


This 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


As 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.


The 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 standards.1


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.


Over 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


Channel 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 students.8 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 encourage suchactivities.12


Tracking the Growth ofSchoolhouse Commercialism 1990-2000 


The 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.


Example: The 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%


2.Exclusive Agreements—Agreements between schoolsand corporations that give corporations the exclusive right to sell and promotetheir goods and/or services in the school or school district.


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%


3.Incentive Programs—Corporate programs thatprovide money, goods, or services to a school or school district when itsstudents, parents, or staff engage in a specified activity.


Example: 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.


Example: 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.


8.        Fundraising—Any 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


Concerns 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 schools.16

State 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.


In 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


Also 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


The 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 phenomenon.23


One 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.


In 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 schoolyear.”24


Recent 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


The 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


Despite 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.


Following 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 principles.


       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?


       Are 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?


Within 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.


Alex 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


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 (


14. Many ofthese guidelines are posted on the CACE website’s Resources page (


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” (RE9911).


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


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) at


20. SeeCalifornia Legislature, AB 117—Enrolled [legislation] (1999), availableat


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.