Sending Kids to Market

By Douglas D. Noble

Giving Kids the Business: The Commercialization of America’s Schools, by Alex Molnar (Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 1996). 223 pages

Someone has finally written a book challenging the pervasive business presence in public schools.

Giving Kids the Businessis a wide-ranging critique of market-oriented assaults on public education (including many examples from the Milwaukee area). These include direct business involvement in schools such as commercial advertising and corporate propaganda in school curriculum, and the management of public schools by for-profit firms. They also include school choice reforms, associated more directly with the conservative movement, which introduce the competition of the market into public schools through private school vouchers and charter schools.

Molnar’s “unifying idea” is that market-oriented reforms, though typically ill-conceived, unproven, and lacking in widespread popular support, are repeatedly paraded as solutions to (often concocted) school problems because they successfully divert policymakers from the fundamental economic and political inequities that are undermining the public schools. Educators, meanwhile, are relentlessly distracted from implementing real reforms, such as reducing class size, by these ideological assaults. According to Molnar, business strategy has been to reduce school expenditures (and corporate taxes) and then to profit from the resulting impoverishment of the public schools through privatization schemes.

Molnar offers excellent, well documented case studies of the varied strategies businesses have used to profit from the impoverished circumstances of the public schools, especially in the nation’s poorest districts. His chapter entitled “And Now a Word From Our Sponsor” offers outrageous examples of corporate curriculum advertising and pro-industry bias. Molnar shows how such industries as oil, tobacco, banking, and nuclear energy, and even foreign countries’ tourist offices, shape curriculum to distort students’ knowledge and their understanding of social issues. This is the best compendium of such examples I’ve seen since Ralph Nader’s Hucksters in the Classroom in the 1970s. Molnar shows forcefully how this commercial barrage feeds on teachers’ dependence on free materials while it “takes up valuable learning time, distracts, misinforms, and manipulates students,” typically with the acquiescence of professional educational organizations and the most “reputable” school publishers. The book cites isolated instances of resistance by parents and includes the National Education Association’s pledge to curtail such practices. But to counteract this corporate assault, clearly there is a need for more public awareness and professional development.

Much more visible has been Christopher Whittle’s high-tech Channel One, piping daily news broadcasts with commercials into the nation’s classrooms, which has met with powerful resistance from the largest state education agencies and other groups. Molnar offers a well documented critical study of Channel One, tracing the invention of broadcasting as a vehicle for advertising, refuting claims that such advertising is harmless, contrasting Whittle’s pitch to educators with his pitch to potential advertisers, and identifying the hidden costs of this “free” service. Molnar argues that Channel One has largely failed in its nationwide bid because it “crossed over the line” in having schools (i.e., the state) force kids to watch commercials (in return for technology). But the avalanche of print advertising and bias in corporate produced curriculum materials is also forced on kids everywhere, with little notice. Apparently, television commercials are considered more dangerous to young minds.


Whittle’s school experiments are further traced in the book’s chapter on the two major for-profit firms managing public schools, Educational Alternatives, Inc. and Whittle’s Edison Project. Molnar offers fine case studies of the failure of these two firms to crack the education market, chronicling through newspaper accounts their marketing and investment strategies, government lobbying, management schemes, and eventual loss of investors and school district contracts. Tracing the history of such efforts since the 1970s, Molnar argues that the fundamental problem with these schemes is privatization itself: “You can’t turn an inherently unprofitable business into a profitable one just by turning it over to the private sector.” Profits can be made only by diverting funds from other schools or by lowering salaries and cutting staff. Molnar insists that such attempts will nevertheless continue. Since these “outside options” shake things up in districts seemingly with nothing more to lose, they shift accountability from besieged superintendents, and they sustain the myth of cheap solutions to school problems.

Two chapters address school vouchers and charter schools, now hot issues in the presidential campaign. Much of the discussion centers on the still controversial Milwaukee voucher experiment. Molnar argues that vouchers, originating in the South’s racist response to the Brown decision and in early “parochiaid” efforts, still are a racist and classist abandonment of public schools, even as proponents now strive for legitimation by targeting poor students. The voucher chapter showcases many key (mainly Wisconsin) voucher promoters and their ideologies, noting, for example, how they celebrate in the voucher debate the same poor parents they vilify on welfare and family values. The chapter on charter schools focuses primarily on for-profit schools, although the idea of charter schools originated in teacher empowerment and most charter legislation requires non-profit status. But Molnar argues that the charter schools most likely to survive will be either for-profit schools or those that ruthlessly jettison teacher unions, lower staff wages, and skirt state regulations.

I recommend this book as ammunition for those already convinced that business in the schools and school choice are bad news; its tone clearly assumes the reader is of like mind. Despite its contributions, this book is not well focused, most importantly in its frustrating introductory and final chapters. One minute Molnar tells us the book is about “corporate involvement in the schools,” then it’s about “commercialism in schools,” then it’s about “privatization,” then it’s about market competition in public education. Beyond this confusion, Molnar offers no attempt to tie all these pieces together, and his lines of argument are never made explicit.


Despite the book’s title, its primary focus is education markets — in kids, schools, and educational goods and services — rather than a comprehensive study of business involvement in schools. There is in fact very little mention of business in the chapters on choice programs, for instance, and the significant role of business in federal, state, and local education policy is largely ignored. Nor is there mention of pervasive business involvement in school-to-work agendas throughout the country, or in the frenetic marketing of technology in the nation’s schools. A comprehensive critical study of such business involvement in school policy remains to be written. This book, more aptly titled “Sending Kids to Market,” is nonetheless a substantial contribution in its own right.

Douglas D. Noble is an educator and writer in Rochester, N.Y. An occasional contributor to Rethinking Schools, he is a critic of educational technology and business involvement in schools and author of The Classroom Arsenal: Military Research, Information Technology, and Public Education.