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  • Writer's pictureGordon Nore

Pop Goes Education: No choice for a new generation of students

“Pop Goes Education: No choice for a new generation of students” by Gordon W.E. Nore Our Times magazine Toronto, Ontario, Canada June/July 1994

The Toronto Board of Education has granted Pepsi-Cola exclusive vending-machine rights in the city’s schools, in return for $1.14 million.

Fill in the blank in the following quote:

“The issues you face are clear… Issue number one… performance. Society has high expectations of __________. They want a higher quality product…at less cost…and relevant to today’s economy.”

The speaker was Jim Corgel, of IBM. Was he referring to: a. personal computers? b. cars? c. education?

The answer “c.” Corgel, IBM’s Academic Information Systems director, and he was speaking at the IBM’s Higher Education Conference in Palm Springs, California last February. Mr Corgel, like many in North America nowadays, believes that education is business, big business. During the course of this and other conferences, hundreds of attendees from schools, colleges and universities around North America will learn of various innovations that are transforming education as we know it and getting students ready for the year 2000. Words like vision, excellence, innovation — and profit — are being given free reign.

But this story begins not in sunny California, but in snow-swept Toronto, last December when the “cola wars” found a new battleground — public school cafeterias. The Toronto Board of Education voted to grant Pepsi-Cola exclusive vending machine rights for three years in the city’s public schools, in return for a fee of 1.14 million dollars. The Board says the money will be used for school services and programs, including keeping cafeteria doors open. Needless to say, reaction to precedent-setting agreement has been mixed. Its detractors see the first strike in an invasion of corporate culture and bad nutrition. The plan’s defenders say it’s a good way for the cash-starved board to bring in needed money. (Metro Toronto school boards receive provincial funding for buildings only; the remaining costs are covered by local taxes.)

But the Pepsi story is not all that new. Private sector involvement in education takes many forms and has been around for some time and takes many forms. It may be that we are just now beginning to notice the corporate logos. What is less certain is the degree of influence corporations have in the classroom, and who is setting the guidelines for so-called partnerships.

Just an hour away from Toronto, in steel-town Hamilton, another private-profit versus public- education controversy was brewing. Dr Gordon Guyatt is the director of the student residency program for internal medicine at McMaster University. The pharmaceutical industry, says Guyatt, has a practice of holding “drug lunches,” in which fledgling physicians are fed, taught about the latest products, and occasionally given small gifts, like tickets to a baseball game. He recently told the drug companies that, under new guidelines, the medical school’s residents are hands-off to them.

“First of all,” says Guyatt, “it is not in the interests of the public that physicians get their prescribing information from the pharmaceutical industry. Second, it is not in the public interest that doctors be accepting gifts from the industry.” According to Guyatt, doctors receive endless promotional materials from the big drug companies, including mounds of brochures, advertisements in journals, and even visits from “detailers” who drop by to hawk the latest products. Guyatt and others would prefer that doctors would get their information from reputable and independent sources. “We’re spending more money on pharmaceuticals than we are on doctors,” he adds. Approximately 16 cents out of every health dollar goes to drugs.

After taking this stand, the medical school received a threat of withdrawal of funding from the industry and denial of requested support for a residency research project. “The threat and the denial were specifically tied to the adoption of the new guidelines,” says Guyatt, though that the losses are negligible, he adds. Other residency programs are bringing similar policies, and a set of country-wide guidelines is in the works.

Back across the border in Boulder, Colorado, that city’s two high schools have allowed McDonald’s restaurants to come in and run their cafeterias. According to Ira Emery Rodd in the journal called The Nation (September, 1992), school officials thought putting the Golden Arches in the school would keep students from taking off to the local fast food strip, or skipping lunch.

Unfortunately, because the “McLunchrooms” fall below federal nutritional standards, they are ineligible for the federal governments’s National School Lunch Program. Low-income students, including teen parents and kids with disabilities, had to work behind the counter to earn their lunch.

McDonald’s isn’t the only player vying for the nearly $5 billion in federal money for school lunches. Pizza Hut, with the help of some sympathetic congressional representatives during the Bush years, managed to make an end-run around federal meat inspection laws. Rodd reports: “Henceforth, says the Pizza Hut exemption, meat toppings are no longer considered meat. No costly inspections, and no impediments to a full Pizza Hut presence in school cafeterias.”

In Western Canada, schools were recently offered free video equipment, courtesy of Montreal’s Youth Network News. In return for the expensive gear, schools must agree to broadcast YNN programming, including commercials.

Charles Ungerleider is Associate Dean for teacher’s education at the University of British Columbia. As a founding member and past president of the Canadian Association for Media Education, he is hardly opposed television in the classroom. He does not however, like the YNN proposition. “First of all,” he says, “schools have a special kind of responsibility for the care of the students who are put in their charge, and, in effect (with YNN’s program), they would be selling the students to the advertisers, and I’m not sure that’s an appropriate relationship for schools to have with clients they are supposed to be serving.”

Ungerleider has followed studies of a similar service available to American schools, Channel One, and is unconvinced of its educational value. “Many of the messages,” says Ungerleider, “are what we count as soft news.” Further, he sees no indication that the programs are tweaking students’ interest in world events. His main concern, however, is educational quality and the shortage of instructional time available to teachers.

Channel One’s content may not be impressive, but its corporate and governmental connections make for fascinating reading. In the September 1992 issue of The Nation, noted author, educator, and social critic, Jonathan Kozol unravels the story behind the story of an education media giant in the making: “Although [Chris] Whittle is the front man [for Channel One], the media conglomerate Time-Warner holds 38 percent of the stock in the Edison Project, as the venture is now called, and has the option to purchase another thirty percent. Another one-quarter of the stock is held by a British tabloid publisher, Associated newspapers.”

Kozol reports that Whittle’s ads for products — including Snickers candy bars and Burger King restaurants — are double the rate for those shown on prime time network news and are “required viewing for almost eight million students daily.” Annual revenues for the Edison project are $100 million (US).

Many conservatives in the US have been pushing for years for more private sector involvement in education. While in the White House, George Bush promised school choice in the form of a vouchering system, which would allow parents to take their allotment of school funding to whatever institution they wanted, including private — or even privatized — schools. The money available to the private sector via the National School Lunch Program is only an appetizer, compared what they could dine on from a vouchering system. Corporations like Burger King have already started schools-for-profit. The New York Times has called Chris Whittle “the impresario of captive-audience marketing.”

In Canada, fresh questions are are being asked about media ownership. While we were tuned in to the story of Ted Rogers’ (of Rogers Cable) purchase of Maclean-Hunter’s cable operations, another mega-media buyout was happening us. Paramount Communications paid 10.3 million for 51% of Ginn Publishing, one of the last Canadian-owned educational publishers. Paramount belongs to Viacom, Inc. According to The Toronto Star, two lobbyists for Paramount, Gerald and Fred Doucet, have “close connections” to former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

The importance of the Ginn sale cannot be underscored. It is a recent example of a growing trend of an ever-increasing number of media outlets being gobbled up by giant media monopolies controlled by a handful of individuals.

Since boards of education depend on publishers for material, the advent of increased ownership by US-based multinationals is bound to have an impact on curriculum. Jonathan Kozol made this observation almost twenty years ago in his book, The Night is Dark and I am far from Home: “The breadth [of different learning materials] at stake, of course, is scrupulously contrived. The children choose between…packaged resource kits from Xerox or SRA (ie IBM), Hip propaganda from Junior Scholastic and Scholastic Scope, exciting paperbacks presented by Little, Brown (ie from Xerox), special issues of My Weekly Reader (owned by Xerox too), the local papers (owned most often by one of a dozen chains)…”

Back in Toronto, as high school students are sipping their Pepsis in cafeterias and school yards, Liz Barkley is hopping mad what she sees as growing privatization of public education. Barkley is head of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation. She worries about coming use of public funds for private schools, and the possibility of private contractors running schools and school services. She has already tackled private contractors trying to take over cafeteria and janitorial services in some schools. She and her counterparts have also been trying to commercials in the classroom “back to the (U.S.) border.” Like many union leaders, she fears the profit-motivated contractors will lead to a weakening of organized labour, less money for workers, and ultimately a decline in the quality of education. Unlike some in business circles, Barkley does not believe that the private sector is not getting enough for its money; rather, she believes it’s not paying out enough. “In Japan,” she notes, “a capitalist nation, the corporate sector pays about 45 percent of the tax; in Canada, it’s seven percent. We have over 2500 corporations in Ontario alone who pay no taxes.”

In fairness, not all companies involved in school activities put profit ahead of children. In Kelowna, B.C., a company called Sun-Rype distributes granola bars, juice and apple sauce. They offer their products to schools in the province at less than their commercial rates and occasionally help schools purchase supplies. Throughout the west, in a special promotional bus provided by Grey Hound in exchange for products, Sun-Rype provides free field trips to museums and other points of interest at no charge. Yes, they give out samples and promotional goodies. But according to Public Relations and Promotions manager Magda Fazekas, the company ties the trips to existing curriculum, and seeks help out in less affluent schools. “Many of these kids might not get to go on a trip otherwise.”

Finally, in Oshawa, Ontario, the heart of the Canadian auto industry, a recent example of corporate values encroaching on education comes a community college, and not private business. The city’s Durham College is sending its graduates into the workforce with written guarantees. Employers, if they are dissatisfied with performance, may send the students back for free remedial courses within the first year.

Ironically, no such guarantee is offered to graduates themselves who may be dissatisfied with their training. Perhaps the ultimate question is not just the extent to which the corporate sector influences schools, but whether or not schools are able to serve two masters.

Gordon W.E. Nore, Copyright © 1994

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