Public Education: The Next Corporate Battleground?

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Washington – With another school year underway and Congress opening debate on education aid, the focus is on evaluating the current state of the nation’s schools. Some critics feel that public schools have evolved into merely another facet of a corporatized society — factories producing members of the workforce. Some blast the commercialization of education, an insidious force creeping into public schools to expose children to consumerism at an increasingly early age.

Since the dawn of his campaign in 1999, President Bush has been quite fond of reminding Americans of his desire to “leave no child behind.” Yet, according to Edward Kealy, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, “no appropriations have been made for education. We don’t see the resources for the results that the president and (Education) Secretary (Rod) Paige have said they seek.”

Some critical voices go beyond the allocation of education funds. John Taylor Gatto, author of the recently released book “The Underground History of American Education,” has performed a comprehensive study on the patterns of schooling in the U.S., finding that today’s public schools are “fashioning children into a raw material for the commercial and government elite.”

“Education used to be about instilling people with good ethics,” Gatto says. “It then incorporated the notion of teaching people how to be good citizens and then having people achieve their personal best.” Gatto contends that “the education system is now being geared to making people into human resources for the benefit of corporations and government.”

Contrary to the popular notion that growing job markets require more skilled workers, many American schools are increasingly producing “people who would accept fast-food jobs,” says Gatto, a former New York State Teacher of the Year. He added: “In order to make management most efficient, the working body is made to be childish because childish people are not independent. If our school started producing people capable of independent thought, it would undermine the economy.”

Emily Heath, senior program director with the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, echoes Gatto’s grievances with U.S. public schooling’s increased focus on the economic bottom line. “Students are supposed to be in school to learn – particularly critical thinking skills,” Heath says. “But companies are teaching them instead to be obedient consumers – to buy, buy, buy.”

Heath’s organization has targeted Channel One, a television news program that airs in schools and includes advertisements. According to Heath, the program is currently broadcast in roughly 40 percent of middle and high schools. “Channel One forces students to watch two minutes of TV commercials every school day,” Heath states. “Students are not even allowed to read during the commercials.” Corporations also use beverage contracts and banners bearing logos to establish a presence in U.S. public schools. “In spite of claims earlier this year from Coca-Cola that they would cut down on promoting soda to kids, we’ve seen no evidence of that.”

According to Heath, some corporations go as far as designing “public relations material to look like classroom activities and lesson plans” in an attempt to gain access to the minds of young students. With questionable motives, oil giants Exxon and Shell “have put together science curriculum material to serve their purposes,” Heath comments.

When Bush, Paige and Congress sit down to hash out how to divide education resources, Heath asks that they first consider a hard truth: in the drive to corporatize a new generation of Americans, “companies are using taxpayer funds and the fact that students are a captive audience.”

Evan Woodward is a writer with IPA Media, a project of the Institute for Public Accuracy.

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