- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2000

Commercialism in schools everything from flashy ads on buses to lucrative exclusive soda contracts is widespread and increasing, as school districts search for ways to add to their coffers.
But state policies governing those activities are, for the most part, inadequate or nonexistent leaving schools ill-prepared for the corporate onslaught, according to a report released yesterday by the General Accounting Office.
School administrators and faculty have little understanding of the amount of product advertising and market research children are exposed to at school, the report stated. Much of it occurs without parental consent, an issue of concern for Sen. Christopher J. Dodd and Rep. George Miller, who requested the GAO investigation and are calling on Congress to take action.
"It's not surprising that schools whose budgets are stretched thin are turning to business leaders, many of whom are strong education advocates," said Mr. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat. "But at the same time, the three 'Rs' shouldn't be retail, resale and rebate.
"Somebody better be a cop here," he said, noting that 95 percent of Internet sites directed at children collect some personal data from users.
Mr. Miller and Mr. Dodd asked the GAO to investigate after they learned of several troubling incidents where commercialism infected schools. They cited several examples, including a student in Georgia who was suspended for wearing a Pepsi shirt on a school-sponsored "Coke Day," and a math textbook that teaches fractions by having students calculate how many children prefer the video game system Sony PlayStation over its competitor, Sega's Saturn. They noted that the roof of one Texas school was painted with a Dr Pepper logo that could be seen by passing airplanes.
The lawmakers are sponsoring a bill called the Student Privacy Protection Act, which requires school districts to obtain parental permission before their children are involved in a commercial activity at school.
They are asking national education groups like the PTA and others to study the report's findings and consider whether commercial activities are taking away from students' learning, as well as violating their privacy. They want school district officials to join with parents to promote better awareness. They also have asked the National Institute of Child Health to study the impact of increased commercialism on children's ability to learn.
The 10-month GAO study analyzed laws in 50 states and seven schools districts in California, Michigan and New Mexico. It found that only 19 states had statutes or regulations for school-related commercial activities. No states specifically address market research practices.
The study also found state laws vary widely and several are limited in scope. Maryland allows restricted advertising on school bus shelters and Virginia restricts advertising on or in school buses. Neither state's laws, however, addresses product sales, indirect advertising or market research.
Some states like New York ban commercial activities on school premises but permit commercial sponsorships of school activities. In Mississippi, school boards are allowed by law to offer protective textbook covers to advertisers, while Florida allows school boards to set their own policies on advertising.
Mr. Miller, California Democrat, urged parents, school officials and policy-makers to keep a closer eye on what children are exposed to in schools. Learning, he said, must be a priority over commerce.
"What is becoming clear is that companies are seeking to exploit the educational platform of our schools to launch the sale of their products," he said. "Ultimately, commercialism in schools is yet another way in which the parent-child relationship is interfered with by corporate interests."

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