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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 15, Number 4, March 2003

What’s wrong with commercialization of public education?

by Larry Kuehn

The public schools are an integral part of the institutions of democracy. Democracy requires public space, places where debate and discussion inform decision making. And it requires education that prepares people to participate as critical citizens in that public space. If we are to achieve the democratic ideal of equity, there must be a commons, and it must be accessible for all to participate effectively. Public education is an important part of that commons.

The commons is not "free," in the sense of not costing anything. It does cost. However, if it is to be open to all of us, we must pay that price collectively rather than individually. When we all pay through the taxation system, we ensure that ability to pay is not the criterion for ability to play.

Commercialization encloses the commons and puts up fences, with admission only to those who can pay. It privatizes public space. It makes the dollar, not citizenship, the entry point to educational experiences and social and political influence in a democratic society.

Commercialization subjects public education to trade agreements, such as the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), currently under negotiation at the World Trade Organization. The result could prohibit a return to an entirely public system.

Why is education being commercialized?
If commercialization privatizes the commons essential to democracy, then why do we see signs of it all around us? It is happening for at least three reasons: desperation, market opportunities, and ideology.

The desperation flows from the cuts in collective funding through the tax system. Parents, teachers, and administrators may be reluctant agents of commercialization, but they see no alternative way to maintain programs that they feel are of value to our students.

Businesses see the schools as good marketing opportunities. Young people significantly influence the spending decisions of families, and many older students hold part-time jobs that give them significant discretionary income. The large corporations, like Coke and Pepsi, are interested not just in sales today, but in long-term customer loyalty. Whatever products are sold in the school receive an implicit stamp of approval from an institution that is still well respected by many.

And then there is neo-liberal market ideology. This is a belief that the market should decide. The dollar, rather than the ballot, should determine what is available and to whom. The ideology accepts the reality that markets increase inequality. In fact, it promotes inequality, claiming that society gains when the rich get richer. Neo-liberalism calls for the role of the state to be reduced through cuts in spending to those programs that reduce inequality, such as education and social services. Neo-liberalism has a hold, not just here but also in many other places.

What are some signs of commercialization in schools?
The Commercialization in Education Research Unit at the University of Arizona annually publishes a survey of trends in commercialization (http://ed It identifies a number of types of commercialization taking place in education: sponsorships, privatization, fundraising, exclusive agreements, incentive programs, educational materials, electronic marketing, and appropriation of space.

The research unit tracks the amount of each form of commercialization by doing a search of key words in news databases in the U.S. This year, it found decreases in news coverage in each area. The conclusion, however, is not that there is a decrease in commercialization, but that it is being normalized. Commercialization in education is so pervasive that it is not being challenged in conflicts that get covered by the news media.

The researchers did add a new category to their study this year. It is what they call "corporate branding"–naming a building after a corporation. This has already been a trend in this province at the post-secondary level, exemplified by the downtown campuses of our universities, where except for the washrooms, every room is named after a corporate donor. At least one school district in B.C.–Surrey–has jumped onto the bandwagon, naming a school theatre the Bell Centre for the Performing Arts in return for sponsorship from the phone company.

Surrey also broke new ground for commercialization when it sent home flyers from the school district with advertisements for Bell Mobility, Playdium, and a martial arts association. The flyer was in a sealed envelope that teachers were instructed to send home with the students.

In accord with neo-liberal ideology, the B.C. provincial government has jumped into a form of commercialization ahead of everyone else. In Bill 34, the B.C. government provided for school districts to create private for-profit companies to sell education services internationally and nationally. This is grand-scale commercialization and privatization.

Among the projects approved by the B.C. government are 20 elite private schools to be run in Japan, Taiwan, and China, all with the aim of making a profit for the school districts. This was noticed even by The Times Education Supplement, a prestigious British publication. The paper pointed out the irony of a public education system running elite private schools internationally to finance public education in B.C. One district (West Vancouver) has announced a plan for a school that will charge $35,000 a year for Grade 11 and 12 education at a B.C. school in Japan.

What can be done?
First, expose what is happening. Much of the commercialization is being carried out by stealth. Exclusive deals are made with Coke or Pepsi, and the contracts are kept secret, supposedly to protect proprietary information from competitors. Students got access to the details of a UBC exclusive deal through a court action. They discovered that the university was not using as much of the proceeds as claimed to make the university accessible for people with disabilities. Choosing a good cause for the profits is often a way the deals are sold to a reluctant populace. One school trustee in Surrey, in the minority of course, has come up with a proposal for transparency. She called for quarterly public reports from the school board on the funds taken in and expended through commercial activity. This is an initiative worthy of consideration everywhere.

Second, push for changes in public policy. Roll back market intrusion. In a number of places in the U.S., school boards have adopted policies to eliminate junk food from sale in schools and to shut down Channel One, the company that gives schools equipment for letting them compel students to watch programs with commercials aimed at young people. The newly elected school board in Central Okanagan has asked the superintendent to produce a report on the health effects of soft drinks and whether they should be sold in the schools. Public policy can be changed through bringing attention to an issue. Raise policies on commercialization with school boards.

Third, and most important, work for adequate public funding of public education. Very few parents, teachers, or school boards really want to commercialize our public schools. They participate in this form of privatization because they see some other public good, such as extra-curricular activities, computers, or sports equipment, that won’t be achieved otherwise. If the same energy now used to raise money for schools through commercialization could be devoted to a campaign for adequate public funding, the pressure on government would be powerful.

Let’s not normalize commercialization of our public spaces. Even when we lose a particular battle, the very act of opposing commercialization creates a public debate and thus a public space, a necessary precondition for democracy. Silence is consent. Let’s not be silent.

Larry Kuehn is director of the BCTF’s Research and Technology Division.