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Someone somewhere out there is aiming to sell something to your grade-school students. It might be a technology company trying to hook students on a new computer-based video game or a non-tech soft drink company trying to sell them Coke products from school vending machines. And these companies are sharing tips with each other, such as at the "In-School Marketing 99" conference. "Marketers have come to realize that all roads eventually lead to the schools," Ed Winter, co-founder of Channel One, has said.

I.a. Commercialization in education and budget realities

This phenomenon of "commercialization" or "commercialism", making awkward bedfellows of nonprofit schools and for-profit corporations, is not a complete stranger to US public schools, which since at least 1890 have led fund drives in "welcomed partnership" with candy companies to sell chocolate bars, for example (the profit from which partly returns to the company) and collected proofs of purchase labels from cereal boxes for school supplies. But with the almost universal wiring of US public schools for the internet in the 1990s, the potential reach of commerce and advertising into schools has increased exponentially. As Callister and Burbules (2003) have written: "An increase in the amount of time students have access to the Internet comes with a worrisome increase in commercialization, surveillance, and loss of privacy. For the sake of education, we potentially serve up our students to those who would exploit them commercially and sometimes personally." The "information superhighway", it turns out, is a two-way street leading not only out of the schools, helping to broaden students minds, but also into them, bringing in not only pornographic websites, but a flood of advertising and thinly-disguised marketing schemes aimed at children. There are, unfortunately, solid economic reasons why so many schools have been forced to turn to corporations for funding and donated materials. State education budgets for education have declined steeply since the dot-com implosion in 2000 and the economic recession. According to David Shreve, education lobbyist for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), "primary education already account[s] for 35 percent to 70 percent of state budgets," budgets that have shrunk due to decreasing taxes and assistance from the federal government. Higher education has been especially hard hit. NCSL also claims in a study that 31 of the 43 states that had finalized their 2004 budgets had cut spending, with few raising taxes to compensate, and a whopping 48 state budgets are currently in the red (Reuters. "Education law tries thin state budgets." July 31, 2003). Illinois lawmakers, on the other hand, have largely tried to spare the states K-12 budget for 2004, even increasing the states perpupil payment, while cutting many other sectors, including higher education. BACK TO TOP

I.b. Types of commercialization

Commercial involvement in schools is very widespread. Corporate involvement includes both technical and non-technical sponsorship. Non-technical sponsorship is probably the largest type of involvement at this point. It includes the following examples to name a few.

Large corporations such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Co have exclusive contracts with many schools. In return for only offering their products in the schools or districts, they donate money or other items such as scoreboards. Vernon Hills in suburban Chicago made a deal with paint-maker Rust-Oleum, to have their football stadium sponsored by the company. Many lunchrooms have corporate food sponsors. Target Stores will donate cash to schools if patrons use their credit card and have signed up do have funds donated. Some school districts have even have credit cards, Visa or Mastercard, that you can apply for and a percentage of the purchases go to the district. Smaller types of commercialism include programs often run by volunteer organizations in the schools such as Parent Teacher Organizations. They include things like collecting Campbells Soup label or General Mills box tops which can be turned in to earn money or free products. Schwanns, a frozen food home delivery company, also donates funds to schools when families have signed up with the company and purchase their items. Some schools sell coupon books or buy cards that include various discounts at local stores or restaurants. Pizza-hut and Six flags also sponsor reading programs in which they award free pizza and Great America tickets to kids for meeting certain reading goals. The students can then use the tickets. However, other family members must purchase theirs. Chicago Public schools currently engages in corporately sponsored programs such as Coca-Colas Attendance program and Pizza Huts Book-it program. Schools cooperation in these programs is sometimes optional, although the school board encourages it. These programs are on another branch of commercialism than traditional ads in school because they offer their products as incentives for students. Some schools offer fund raisers, and these can include selling candy and nuts to selling taffy apples to benefit the Pre-K program. Chicago Public schools does not allow advertisements, and does not use services such as those supplied by Channel One. Even public universities, such as the University of Illinois and other land-grant institutions, are not immune to commercialism. The U of I, for instance, is now officially a "Coca Cola school," with that company having sole rights to the vending machine sales of soft drinks. And the board of trustees has actively sought out investment and research presence by major corporations such as Motorola, which is sure to have an influence on the direction student and departmental research takes. Major computer corporations (e.g. Sun Microsystems) also fund graduate researchers in the U of Is famed electrical engineering department.