Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#89, May 30, 2000


by Marylaine Block

A question for parents: How much do you figure your kids are worth?

I'm asking because there's a good chnce your local school board is selling your kids. Not their bodies, to be sure*, just their attention. Educators have discovered that corporations will pay well for it.

After all, where else can marketers reach so many kids in an environment so free from all the competing commercial lures of radio and TV? And the kids are even required by law to be in that virgin media environment at least six hours a day!

True, advertisers have been insinuating themselves into the classroom for over 50 years, giving schools free posters, lesson plans and multimedia programs, and even slapping their ads on the covers of textbooks. But that's when advertisers were thinking small.

Then Chris Whittle made school boards an offer they couldn't refuse: a free satellite hook-up and TV monitors for every classroom in return for simply requiring every student to watch Channel One's 10 minute news program plus 2 minutes of commercials, every day. More than 12,000 schools - over 40% of all middle and high schools in the country - have taken him up on the offer. (CNN has also developed a news program for classrooms. It doesn't have ads, but it also doesn't give away free equipment. For some reason, it isn't used anywhere near as much.)

Another company called Zap Me offers schools complete computer labs with up to 15 computers, satellite dish, and software. All schools have to do in return is guarantee that students will use the computers - which feature continuous advertising - four hours a day. Oh, yes, the Zap Me people would also like to collect a little personal data about the students and the web sites they're visiting. So far more than 1,000 schools have taken them up on the offer.

Now AOL has come up with a free software program for schools called [email protected], which links in web sites suitable for specific grade levels and subjects; the program does not permit students to visit any sites AOL did not select. When students register to use it, they have access to instant messaging and e-mail, while AOL has access to personal information about them. AOL doesn't advertise to students (just to teachers and administrators) but it does keep the name AOL at the top of every screen to inculcate brand loyalty. (It's not clear why schools would buy into this when so many teachers and librarians have created excellent, free web guides to high quality resources for students and teachers.)

So, what's wrong with getting something for nothing? After all, many schools are seriously underfunded and can't afford to buy all this wonderful equipment and programming.

The problem is, it's not someting for nothing. It's something for turning over to corporations decisions that should be made by teachers and school boards about what students learn and how they spend their class time. Even if you think ten minutes of class time spent with Channel One each day is actually useful, those two minutes a day of commercials add up to six hours of lost class time each year. Your tax dollars paid for that teaching time, but your kids aren't getting it.

Requiring that kids use a computer lab four hours a day forces teachers to structure lessons around computer use, never mind that it might be far more useful to spend that time reading, writing, and thinking.

When we allowing corporations to enter our classrooms, we also rob our children of the only space where they are treated purely as growing minds and spirits, rather than as small people with money to spend and no idea how to use it wisely.

And we tell our children that though we don't value them enough to pay for the schools and teachers and equipment they need, we DO value their attention because it's a salable commodity. We are telling kids that science and math and English are all very well, but what they really need to pay attention to is ads. We're offering our kids for sale at a bargain price.

I think we were better off when the PTA just held bake sales.

* This column was written before junk food vending machines became commonplace in schools

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