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COLUMN: Corporate sponsorship threatens quality of education

The growing privatization and corporatization of public education come at a time when the welfare state and civil society are increasingly under attack by the private sector, and when class polarization is widening. Public schools and universities across the nation are in desperate need of financial assistance, particularly those schools serving working-class and minority students.

Many are turning to corporate philanthropists such as Bill Gates for financial help. Gates has offered $1 billion in scholarship funds to economically disenfranchised students of color.

Today, schools and universities are becoming increasingly disciplined by the corporate logic of accountability, predictability, measurability, efficiency and productivity. The result has been a decrease in the autonomy of teachers, a weakening of the role of teachers' unions,and the reorganization of large urban school districts such as Los Angeles Unified. All of this could lead to the disempowerment of teachers, parents and students, as well as the worsening of class and racial divisions.

Educational policies that align themselves with the ideology of maximum profitability (output) with minimum investment (input) are re-organizing public schools and universities in a manner that closely resembles the current "pay-as-you-go" policies of HMOs.

The corporate-sponsored curriculum is finding its way into schools that are willing to sacrifice critical citizenship for the creation of consumer identities. Corporate lessons-in-a-box and free technology seem to be an appropriate reward for transforming school premises into a youth-oriented Times Square.

A growing number of poorly funded public school districts are signing contracts with corporations that give them permission to advertise on school premises. For example, American Passage Media Corporation has installed billboards in high school locker rooms where it reaches nearly three million students. These billboards, or "Gymboards," advertise a variety of commercial products such as Tampax Tampons. At four New York City public high schools, American Express finances "Academies of Travel & Tourism" which prepare students for jobs in the tourism industry.

As part of a curriculum that has been developed by American Express, students learn about world geography and foreign cultures. Lifetime Learning Systems provides free textbook covers which expose 16 million students to advertising that is paid for by corporations such as Nike, McDonald's and Hershey.

The Center for Commercial-Free Public Education reports that public schools are signing contracts that allow corporate sponsors like Burger King and Sprite to place advertisements on school buses. In New York City, the board of education recently signed a nine-year, $53 million contract with an advertising agency that allows it to advertise on the district's buses. But considering the school district's annual $8 billion budget, the estimated $5.9 million a year the district receives seems rather trivial.

In another case, Exxon provides free educational videos to classroom teachers in a concerted effort to restore its much tainted public image after the Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Exxon's propaganda depicts the company as an environmentally-friendly organization helping to protect the wildlife in Alaska.

The Hershey corporation teaches the nutritional values of its chocolate candies to students and suggests how it can be an integral part of a balanced daily diet. Finally, Nike provides teachers with "sneaker-making kits" that teach students how Nike shoes are assembled as part of a classroom lesson that focuses on protecting the environment.

While there has been vociferous public protest by students, teachers and parents against the corporate takeover of education, corporations have fought back. In public schools, colleges and universities across the country, students are penalized for resisting corporate colonization.

In 1998, Mike Cameron, a senior at Greenbrier High School in Evans, Ga., was suspended for wearing a Pepsi T-shirt on the day the school was participating in Coca Cola's "school-sponsored Coke day", a national competition with other schools to win $10,000.

Jennifer Beatty, a student who attended Morain Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Ill., protested against the growing corporatism and commercialization of colleges and universities by chaining herself to the metal mesh curtains of McDonald's Student Center. Soon after, Beatty was arrested and expelled.

Schooling must be understood as part of the conflict between labor and capital, particularly with respect to the growing low-skill, low-wage, service economy in the United States. In addition, the persistent right-wing attacks on public education should be seen as ideologically aligned with the neo-liberal social and economic policies that support current aspects of corporate anorexia: downsizing, outsourcing and flexible rearrangements of labor markets.

Teachers and students would benefit from understanding the politics of educational privatization.


Ramin Farahmandpur & Peter McLaren, University Wire, 04-19-2000

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