Apodaca: Corporations have no place in public education

How far should we go to save public education?

So far as to name a school gym after a corporate sponsor? Let business interests influence textbook content? Put cigarette and junk food ads on the sides of school buses?

If you think these ideas sound far-fetched, think again.

As school budgets continue to be squeezed, districts are increasingly tempted to allow an insidious march of corporate marketers onto campus. Bearing gifts of needed school supplies, enrichment programs and outright cash, these businesses come in do-gooder guise, but that pretense does little to camouflage their aims of manipulating the buying decisions of kids and their parents.

Of course, alliances between business and public education have long existed. Supermarket scrip programs, contributions to booster clubs and sports teams by local merchants and advertisements in school-related materials — these types of relationships aren't new or particularly controversial.

And certainly there are organizations affiliated with business people, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which do genuine good deeds for education and other causes.

But now there's blood in the water, and business sharks can sense it. Desperate for money as public funding dries up, many schools are increasingly allowing big profit-making enterprises to come to the rescue, sometimes in shockingly brazen ways.

In public education, "the presence of commercializing activities is growing at a fast pace," according to the Colorado-based National Education Policy Center (NEPC) in its annual report on commercialism in schools.

Consider some recent examples:

•Oil giant Shell and the American coal industry are among those corporate interests that have produced school curriculum slanted toward the benefits of their businesses while downplaying the disadvantages. In the coal industry case, school materials supplierScholastic Inc., under pressure from critics, last July halted distribution of the fourth-grade curriculum.

But the coal producers and a host of other businesses, from technology companies like Google to giant food concerns, continue to dangle cash and other prizes before teachers and school kids through science fairs, contests and other promotional stunts.

Several states have passed laws — and many others are weighing legislation — allowing advertising on the sides of school buses. Some of these laws prohibit ads for alcohol, tobacco and other products deemed objectionable, but not all offer such restrictions.

While California is not among the states with such a law — the Senate killed a school bus-ad bill last month — the issue could rear its head again as the school funding picture grows increasingly bleak.

New third-party businesses are springing up to act as liaisons between school districts in need of cash and deep-pocketed businesses. This growing niche is seen as a means of capitalizing on the increasing propensity of public school systems to consider partnerships with large national corporations instead of small local businesses.

One such middleman company is Colorado-based Education Funding Partners (EFP), which offers "unrestricted funds to public school districts across the country via Fortune 500-brand name corporate sponsorships," according to its website.

One district that has turned to EFP is San Juan Unified in the Sacramento area, which is facing potentially huge budget cuts and layoffs.

EFP is hoping others will succumb to its offer to ease their pain.

"Our new model will revolutionize major corporate funding of public education," its website proclaims.

This is a revolution that should be avoided.

Yes, these are dire times for public education, and there's no end in sight to the bad news. Gov. Jerry Brown's newly revised budget projects the state's shortfall at $16 billion, far worse than the already dismal $9.2 billion in red ink previously forecast.

Brown has an initiative headed toward the November ballot that would increase the state sales tax by a quarter of a percent and raise income taxes on the wealthy. If passed, those taxes are expected to generate about $8.5 billion in the next fiscal year.

If the measure fails, Brown has put forth a doomsday scenario that could include chopping $5.5 billion from public schools and community colleges already operating on drastically reduced budgets. The governor has said the cuts would be the equivalent of lopping three weeks off the school year, that grim prognosis made even before the latest budget revision.

Even if voters approve the tax initiative or a competing measure aimed at raising revenue for schools, education will still be in deep trouble.

The temptation is great, then, for school districts to sell their souls to corporate hucksters.

Schools officials might rationalize that they'll refuse inappropriate funding sources, such as tobacco or alcohol ads. They could assuage themselves that safeguards will be used to distance corporate sponsors from decisions that shape curriculum.

But once the devil's in the door, there are always repercussions.

"Corporate relationships cannot help but shape school practices," the NEPC report concludes. Whether it's through the displacement of more educationally valid activities or through the subtle subversion of classroom learning, the influence will be there.

It bears remembering, the report states, that corporations exist for one reason only: to make money. When businesses fork out funds for schools, they do so with visions of molding future customers.

Selling access to students will certainly bring much-needed money into our public schools, but the trade off is that it will make our kids dumber.

How far should we go to save public education? Not so far that in saving it we also destroy it.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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