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Kids in cafeteria
Society and Community:
Schools Inc.
More on This Story:
Overview: Facts and Stats

There is now a booming market for private enterprise inside public schools, encompassing everything from companies that actually run the institutions for profit to commercial ads on computer monitors. Critics and some parents are up in arms over what this teaches the so-called fast-food generation. But other parents, teachers, and administrators say such sponsorship is a good way to bring money into America's financially-strapped schools.

Schools are sometimes forced to make tough decisions. For instance, a school district in Sarasota, Florida, faced a huge budget shortfall of $15 million. They closed that gap by putting an exclusive drink-sales contract out for bid. For some schools, the question literally comes down to selling soda or doing without software. According to the Center for Analysis of Commercialism in Education at the University of Arizona, commercialism in schools has increased as much as four times in the past decade.

Commercial Activities in Schools

A September 2000 report to Congress by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) on commercial undertakings in schools found the following types of activities:

  • Direct Sales: Most commonly, soft drinks sold through exclusive contracts or short-term fundraising agreements.

  • Direct Advertising: Billboards, soft drink machines, and scoreboards. Some schools have sponsored events that feature company logos.

  • Media Based Advertising: Some free educational media, like Channel One, also contain commercial advertising. To use Channel One's 12-minute newscast, schools must make sure students stay tuned for two minutes of advertising. Some schools have received free computer equipment that incorporates direct advertising like banner ads which flash on the screen at intervals.

  • Indirect Advertising: This frequently comes in the form of corporate sponsored education materials, teacher training, contests, and promotions programs that provide recognition and rewards for educational achievements. (Pizza-Hut's BookIt Program and Duracell's Battery Invention programs are examples of this approach cited in the GAO report.)

School Funding

It 1960, the United States government spent approximately $2800 to help educate each student(in Year 2000 dollars). By 2000, that figure was nearly $7000. At the same time, the percentage of total funding that came from the federal government hovered around 10 percent. That continues to leave 90 percent of a huge budget to local and state sources. And, for the most part, that funding comes from property taxes. So schools have begun searching for alternative funding sources. Some systems have had success with local fundraisers, but critics point out that such activities will usually be more successful in districts that are already wealthy. Commercial contracts have become a common way of adding to coffers and getting up-to-date technology and equipment.

The Debate

Below are some of the arguments on both sides of the debate, statistics about school funding and school food programs, and a brief look at some recent developments in school/commercial partnerships. We invite you to join the debate on our message boards.


  • Exclusive contracts, signing bonuses, and incentive programs can bring up to six- and seven-figure sums to school districts.
  • Local and national businesses become invested in the educational system.
  • Schools receive free educational media. (Channel One reaches eight million teenagers and provides free satellite dishes and use of equipment in exchange for a promise to show their programming on 90 percent of school days in 80 percent of classrooms. Similarly, DirecTV hopes to bring educational programming to 50,000 schools and provide equipment to 2000 low-income schools in 2002.)
  • Advertising is already ubiquitous, so schoolchildren are seeing nothing new.
  • Incentive programs and corporate-sponsored contests provide a great way to reward educational achievement.


  • Schools are taxpayer-funded and shouldn't promote a particular company or product.
  • Students are required by law to attend school; thus, they provide a captive audience for advertisers, and critics question the ethics and advisability of advertising to young people.
  • There are health issues related to snack and soft drink sales in a population that is increasingly overweight and unfit.
  • Schools are put in the position of advocating products to fulfill contract agreements.
  • Incentive programs that reward educational achievement with prizes are really attempting to encourage brand loyalty.

The Scene Today

According to the Center for Analysis of Commercialism in Education's Fourth Annual Report on Commercialism in the Schools, some exclusive contracts and direct advertising programs are being modified because of community criticism. Coca-Cola has said it will allow competing soft drinks and health drinks to be sold in its vending machines. The company will also tone down the branding on its machines. The Los Angeles Unified School District will ban soft drink sales in school entirely starting in 2004. The Seattle school system recently decided to end its contract with Channel One over concerns about advertising in the classroom.

School Facts

Average expenditure per pupil in the United State, 2000:  $6,911
Percentage of school budget spent on instruction, 2000:  61.7%
Percentage of school funding from local sources, 2000:  42.9%
Percentage of school funding from state sources, 2000:  49.5%
Percentage of school districts with soft drink contracts, 2000:  49.9%
Percentage of high schools with vending machines, 2000  98.2%
Percentage of all schools offering soft drinks in vending machines, 2000:  76.3%
Percentage of all schools offering 100% fruit of vegetable juice in vending machines, 2000:  55.6%

Sources: The National Center for Education Statistics; Centers for Disease Control, "School Health Policies and Programs Study 2000;" Arizona State University, Commercialism in Education Research Unit; Office of the Surgeon General, Overweight and Obesity; United States General Accounting Office, "Commercial Activities in Schools," September 2000; The National Education Association; AMERICAN EDUCATOR; THE SEATTLE TIMES; THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

Schools, Inc. Resources:

The Center for Commercial Free Education
The Center for Commercial Free Education is a non-profit, grassroots organization committed to keeping schools free from commercialism and under community control. The CCEF Web site provides an issue brief describing commercialism in schools and the resulting problems. Other features include ways to take action, relevant news and achievements, and membership information.

Childhood Obesity Summit
The Childhood Obesity Summit brought together different segments of society on September 11-12, 2002 to address the epidemic of childhood obesity. The Web site contains presentations, obesity factsheets, and the Body Mass Index (BMI) - a calculator that measures obesity within seconds.

Commercialism in Education Research Unit
Commercialism in Education Research Unit, based at Arizona State University, is the only research organization studying the issue of commercialism in public schools. The CERU Web site provides annual reports, articles of interest, resources and archives. Another feature of CERU's Web page is the ability to track legislation related to commercialism in public schools.

National Education Association: Debate - Should Schools Sell Cola Companies Exclusive Rights?
Two teachers debate the issue in an online forum. Members respond on both sides in an open forum.

National Soft-Drink Association
The National Soft-Drink Association, a trade association, compiled these press releases, research, and studies that refute the correlation between soft-drinks and obesity.

Ohio American Academy of Pediatrics Statement on Soft Drink Contracts in Schools
This statement of caution from the Ohio AAP describes the problems associated with schools granting exclusive soda contracts in Ohio schools. The Ohio AAP states that increasing consumption of soda leads to two health problems: obesity and osteoporosis in children from decreased intake of milk. Other less recognizable problems associated with soda intake is enamel erosion, dental cavities, and hyperactivity.

Parent Soup: Advertising in Schools
Parent Soup provides resource links related to the controversy surrounding in-school advertising.

School Health Policies and Programs Study
In 2000, the Center for Disease Control released the findings of their School Health Policies and Programs Study (SHPPS). Some interesting statistics from the study include: 23% of schools allow corporate promotion of candy, soda, and fast food restaurants; 49.9% of school districts have a contract allowing exclusive soft-drink sales; and 76% of schools offer soda, sport drinks, and fruit drinks to students.

The School Marketplace: Has Commercialization Gone Too Far?
This article from the American Educator 2001 argues that the commercialization of schools endangers children's health, community control of the school environment, and the autonomy of the school policies. The solution to these problems, according to Alexander Wohl, is striking "a balance - one that allows corporations interested in supporting teaching and learning to do so while keeping in mind that education, not coercion, should be the number one priority and goal."

Unequal School Funding in the United States
This research paper from Education Leadership argues inequitable funding of public schools causes a disparity in student performance.

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