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Our Schools for Sale? Part 2

Pat McAdie

The Second in a series on privatization in our schools

“Schoolhouse commercialism includes a wide range of corporate marketing activities. It entails the use of schools by businesses as a venue to promote their products and services to students and their families as well as to reinforce the value of consumption as the golden road to happiness.”1

We are hearing more and more reports about the presence of corporations in our schools: Scholastic book clubs, Campbell’s Labels for Education, and more recently McDonald’s healthy living program, Costco’s reading program, and Indigo’s Love of Reading fund.

In addition, some corporations and industry associations develop curriculum units for use in our schools: the Dairy Farmers of Canada support resources on nutrition; the Mining Association of Canada has curriculum units on mining; the Atomic Energy of Canada association has developed curriculum units on nuclear energy. What questions does this raise?

The Canadian Teachers’ Federation, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Fédération des syndicats de l’enseignement recently conducted a national survey on commercial in Canada’s public schools (see “Our Schools for Sale?”, Voice, Winter 2006). The survey included questions about corporate presence in our schools including advertising, exclusive contracts, learning materials, and magazines. Here is what we found is taking place in Ontario elementary schools:

  • 6 per cent have sold advertising space
  • 28 per cent have ads in hallways, cafeterias, and on school supplies
  • 24 per cent have an exclusive contract with either Coke or Pepsi
  • 12 per cent have a partnership or sponsorship with a corporation or business to provide such services as tutoring, extracurricular programs, and academic courses
  • 71 per cent have Scholastic learning materials and book clubs
  • 17 per cent subscribe to Kidsworld, an Ontario-based magazine promoting products and curriculum guides written by other corporations (for example, a healthy lifestyles guide from Kidsworld and Wonder). Corporations, whatever their motives, know that being in schools is good for business. A recent US survey found that 83 per cent of respondents had a more positive image of companies that support causes they care about; 65 per cent said they would switch brands on this basis.2 Some businesses are primarily concerned with increasing profits. The CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises in the US has stated: “The school system is where you build brand loyalty.”3

As a way to be involved in schools some corporations and industry associations sponsor curriculum materials, not all of which, unfortunately, are problem-free. A US study of corporate-sponsored curriculum units found that almost 80 per cent are biased, incomplete, or contain inaccuracies.4

When does corporate involvement in education extend beyond acceptable limits? This is a difficult question. We know that many companies are committed to education – not just for the children of their employees but for the community at large. Does that give them the right to place ads in our schools? Should they be involved in writing curriculum units that promote their products? Does donating money and resources to schools absolve corporations of other behaviours such as questionable labour or environmental practices? While there are differing opinions on these issues, we need to have the discussions and debates. Privatization goes to the heart of the purposes of our education system.

1 Molnar, Alex and David Garcia, Empty Calories: Commercializing Activities in America’s Schools, The eighth annual report on schoolhouse commercialism trends: 2004-2005. Commercialism in Education Research Unit, Education Policy Studies Laboratory, Arizona State University, 2005. 
2 Fogel, Elaine, All Cause-Related Marketing: Does corporate America genuinely care? January 25, 2005,
3 Quoted in Alex Molnar, Virtually Everywhere: Marketing to children in America’s schools,The seventh annual  report on schoolhouse commercialism trends: 2003-2004. Education Policy Studies Laboratory, 2004, p. 71.
4 Consumers Union, Captive Kids: A report on commercial pressure on kids in school, 1998.