Keeping schools safe from advertising

June 01, 1998|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

OBEY your thirst. Read this.

Corporate America's incursion into the halls of academia continues unabated. A school district in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul just became the latest to offer soft-drink makers exclusive rights to vending machines on its campuses. The superintendent wishes he didn't have to do it, but his schools need the money.

It's been happening all over, of course. Their extracurricular programs gutted, buildings deteriorating, books outdated and personnel underpaid, schools have been turning to corporate America to fill the gap. Cafeterias become food courts and soda-machine rights go on the auction block as schools line up to make deals that could mean the difference between having music class this year or doing without. What were once students are now customers.

And corporate funding is the choice of a new generation. Apparently, the only choice they've got.

Paying the cost

Where else are they going to get the money they need? The public seems remarkably unexercised about the desperate state of its schools, steadfastly unwilling to pay the cost of quality education. One senses no groundswell of indignation over the fact that we are unable to guarantee children what ought to be a basic right: safe, instructive schools. So educators have been forced to scale back their services or go elsewhere for money. They've become hucksters, and they're passing it on to their students.

Have you driven a Ford lately? If so, maybe you've driven past kids washing cars and peddling candy bars to support basic academic activities. Maybe you've seen them standing at intersections begging change like panhandlers to pay for their band.

It ought to make you sick. It ought to make you angry.

Which is a change that would be welcomed by the people to whom you entrust your kids.

I've spent a fair amount of time in classrooms over the past few years, talked to a lot of teachers. Invariably, the conversations come around to the same complaint: We ask schools to do things for which they were never designed -- search for drugs, guard against weapons, feed the hungry, teach values . . . virtually raise our children. Yet we stint when it comes time to pony up the money. We ask them to do more with less.

And then we have the audacity to ask why Johnny can't read. Heck, Johnny's classroom is an oven in hot weather. His desk is old and rickety and there aren't enough books for everybody. The roof leaks, his teacher is stressed out and kids are packing heat.

Why can't Johnny read? It's amazing Johnny hasn't had a nervous breakdown.

Small wonder cash-strapped educators casting about for answers think Coke Is It.

Overexposed to ads

A sad thing, too, isn't it? I mean, aren't our kids exposed to enough sloganeering consumerism everywhere else? Hasn't Madison Avenue already made inroads enough into their lives? And ours? From the womb to the tomb, we are bombarded, commercial slogans playing on an endless internal loop that shapes our thinking, molds our values and bends us toward want.

A reader told me a story once: Little girl goes to her grandfather and says, "Grampa, I know the sound a frog makes."

"Really?" he says. "What sound is that?"

Little girl: "Bud."

You make your peace with it. Tell yourself it's a necessary evil of capitalism and democracy.

But should we really make peace with Madison Avenue following our children to school, insinuating itself into a place where the major concern ought to be education?

We ought to care about that more than we do. Ought to understand the obvious: That the money spent on our children is an investment in our own better tomorrow. If we can't grasp that, I guarantee you someone else will. Someone who wants that investment to pay off in a completely different way.

Did somebody say . . . McDonald's?

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Pub Date: 6/01/98

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