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t e x tv e r s i o n

An Interview with Alex Molnar

[ by Jay Huber ] image from a Cover Concepts textbook cover

Alex Molnar is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, author of Giving Kids the Business: the Commercialism of America's Schools, and one of the nation's leading experts of the commercialization of public education. The following interview was conducted by Jay Huber via phone in January 1997.

(Illustration taken from a McDonald's textbook cover provided free to schools by Cover Concepts.)

Stay Free!: Early in the book you bring up the Apples program, where people, by buying stuff at sponsoring stores, help schools get Apple computers. Does your criticism of that program boil down to it not being generous enough? Because you bring up the actual percentage of the amount that was set aside and take issue with that.
Molnar: It's pretty much just a straight-forward marketing scam. It's an attempt to get parents to purchase products at stores that they might or might not otherwise patronize, on the grounds that they're somehow improving the chances that their children will have access to computer technology. But you gotta spend an awful lot of money to get any computer technology, because the way the rules are rigged, the people who make the most from the Apples for Computers game are the people who buy the computers from the manufacturer and then sell them to the marketers that run the contest. For a store that participates it's neither here nor there; they have a marketing budget and they spend it on this instead of something else. So, a marketer goes to them and says, Spend your advertising dollars this way. For the store, it doesn't make any difference at all. The big bucks are really for the people who inflate the cost of the computers to make their profit. Instead of being something that's really win-win for the kids, it's nothing more than a very large money-making operation for the middle people. If computer technology is important, I'm trying to imagine a stupider way of equipping schools with computers. If children need access to computer technology, then it ought to be a fundamental part of the school program. It ought to be paid for with tax dollars and every child ought to have equal access to that technology. It shouldn't be dependent on whether a parent can afford to buy $150 worth of flank steak at Cole's.

Looking at it from a local level, with locally owned companies, can the desire to help out the local school system and the desire to get a good marketing push or a bit of goodwill out of it, can those desires co-exist in any productive way?
No. First of all, although the Supreme Court at the end of the nineteenth century established the Constitutional fiction that corporations are legal individuals and that therefore they have constitutional protections that individuals have; that was kind of a nutty decision that has cast a long shadow over a lot of things. Quite apart from the legal consequences of it, it's led to a kind of assumption that we can talk about corporations the same way we can talk about individuals in everyday life. In fact, corporations are special interests. They have a legal obligation to promote the welfare of the people that own them. Simple as that, whether it's a closely held corporation owned by private individuals, or whether it's a publicly traded corporation. Any kind of scheme that involves a corporation will be held to one test, and that test is: does this benefit the corporation? Any other benefit that may accrue is tangential to that, is secondary to that. So any relationship with a business that a school enters into is characterized by the business first and foremost serving itself. Those interests may or may not coincide with the interests of the school. Most often they don't.

The other problem of thinking about corporations as individuals is that at a practical level, people tend to talk about corporate involvement and corporate citizenship with regard to schools and think about it the same way in which they think about a local PTO member (Parent-Teacher Organization) volunteering to do something for the schools. And it's absurd. Can you imagine in your wildest dreams that a father or mother volunteering to tutor children in a school would only do so if they were allowed to promote the business they worked for? People would say, What a reprehensible parent.

On the other hand, I could see the example of a fairly conscientious executive or a local CEO who says, "Hm, you know, I really want to tutor poor kids who are reading several grades below level, and gosh, we can get our name out there at the same time." Does that latter motivation ultimately trump the former motivation?
Absolutely it does. If a business executive wants to tutor children, what's wrong with that? That's a wonderful and laudable thing to do. Why should that carry any other freight?

In this case I'm thinking of a local [Durham, N.C.] example, a place where I actually tutor. Some of the people that tutor are from a real estate company, which gets all of its real estate agents to tutor at the school. It's not necessarily that they're forced to do it, but...
Well good for them. I applaud them.

But wouldn't you object to that? They do definitely get a name recognition thing out of it at the same time.
It depends what they're doing. Are they going in wearing blazers?

Well, no. In this case the president of the company sent a letter to parents--people who had participated last year--asking them to return this year and tutor again. It was on the company letterhead.
I would say that's one of the more benign forms of it. The company president, for identification only, uses the company letterhead. That's very benign. This isn't marketing, trying to sell a product or whatever. Yes, he gets name recognition out of it. But the guy's simply writing a letter, communicating, he's not pushing a service.

Well, let's get into a more drastic example then. A recent educational supplement of The New York Times talked about how Colorado Springs and Seattle were examples of school systems that accept advertising dollars. The ostensible motivation for that is that they are cash-strapped and in places where any sort of tax revenue increase is highly unlikely.
Actually, in Washington state, it is possible.

I guess the way the writer couched it...
That's the rhetoric that's coming out of the school board. Certainly in a place like Colorado Springs, which is very conservative, it's probably not very likely that they're going to be able to raise tax revenue, or there's a strong public resistance to it... Since you read that, Jay, you realize that the amount of money that's even going full-tilt boogie... Colorado Springs is raising peanuts. About $68,000.

In terms of the ad revenue.
Yeah. 'Cause this is one of those things.... My analogy would be to the story "The Devil and Daniel Webster." The school's made a pact with the devil in my view, and not only that but they've sold themselves real cheap.

Because even if they're crying for money, they're not getting it. You remember the scene where the devil talks about Daniel Webster's soul? He says most people would fit inside this little matchbox here, their soul. But, boy, if I got Daniel Webster I'd have to make a special case. Well, the Seattle and Colorado Springs public schools' souls would be too small even for a matchbox. You'd have to get something smaller. Not only have they sold their soul, they've sold it for nothing. It's like Spiro Agnew. You remember Spiro Agnew? I always figured Spiro Agnew was a crook. But I never figured he was such a cheap, petty crook.

Colorado Springs and Seattle have done nothing to address their financial crisis. I mean, the amount of advertising revenue to the Colorado Springs school district is a piss in the ocean. It's nothing. And even if Seattle raises a million dollars--which they are not going to do--they've got a $35 million projected deficit over five years. It's nothing. It's not even going to scratch it. So they can't do themselves much fiscal good. But they can do an enormous amount of harm to their integrity, and an enormous amount of harm to their public responsibility, and an enormous amount of harm to the educational program of their district.

So the notion that this money can somehow be a necessary evil to alleviate cash shortages is a joke because it won't even come close to serving that function.
If you're going to discuss it within that frame of reference, then that's right: it's a joke. However, even if it would raise the necessary money, I'd say you shouldn't do it. Even if you accepted the premises of the argument, it's a wrong-headed argument. I don't accept the premises of the argument because I don't think that advertising, which is in essence propaganda, is consistent with the purposes of education. It's like matter and antimatter. They don't fit together.

Let's talk about that. A libertarian [Nick Gillespie] proposed to me the idea that classrooms are not uncontested space. There's ideology and agendas coming from various angles, even if you exclude commercials. In one sense, you can't really say that you can make the classroom a commercial-free zone, because there's all kinds of competing agendas already taking place.
I'd regard that as kind of a nutty argument, too. And the reason I say nutty is because of course it's a contested space. But the point is that it's contested explicitly with reference to public pedagogical, educational, and civic values. And that's very different than inserting propaganda, which is incomplete, misleading, and whose explicit purpose is not to promote the best interests of the children, but the welfare of the corporation. I mean that's an absolute given. And that's uncontested.

So of course classrooms and curriculum are contested space. What does it mean to promote the welfare of children? That's a question that contains all shades of meaning and is subject to all kinds of different interpretations. I think it should be that way. I agree with that. The question is: what is legitimate to contest and what isn't? Would your libertarian friend say that the most important contest that goes on in the classroom is the duel between Pepsi and Coke? Is that what we reduce our civic dialogue to?

He seems to think that some of these commercial inroads into the classrooms can be used for purposes of media critique.
Yeah, but you can't turn the whole school curriculum into media criticism. The problem is, most teachers are not trained in media criticism, they're trained in English or social studies or whatever. So, as a practical matter, that's not gonna happen.

Secondly, since most advertising propaganda is good propaganda, it never literally lies. It's either empty, in an appeal to the emotions: "Pepsi's cool," "Sprite is what's happening." And so on. It's empty, it means nothing. I was in Germany and I saw a commercial for Pepsi, and the whole tagline of the commercial was "Pepsi is America." Well, what's that? It's either empty or, it's really good propaganda in the sense that it doesn't tell you the complete story. In other words, it lies by omission. And most teachers are not able to be well-enough trained, or have the time, to say, "Look at all the things that are omitted. Look at all the things that weren't said."

I guess I was going to get into Channel One in that regard, too, because this educational supplement in The New York Times said that Channel One is now in almost 40 percent of the secondary schools in the country.
According to them, it's in about 12,000 [schools], but then they want to pump up their numbers to get advertising bucks. According to the NEA, it's in about 8,000. The figure's probably somewhere in between.

It's still fairly extraordinary. Given that, is it even a possible way to salvage the use of the thing with media critique. I mean, if it's going to be in the school already. . .
Not really, because of the contract terms. The terms have varied somewhat over the years; sometimes an individual school could negotiate a slightly different contract. But, in essence, 90 percent of the children need to be watching the program 90 percent of the time. In most schools, that means that those programs are broadcast in any class the child happens to be in when the program is broadcast. That might be homeroom, that might be science, it might be math, it might be anything. It might be gym. The idea that this is somehow going to be subject to media scrutiny is nonsense.

I hadn't realized that the element of control was so completely removed from the school.
Oh, the school has no control at all. None at all. Channel One is the antithesis of local control of curriculum. Nobody at the school knows what the content of that program is going to be until it appears on their screen.

Given that, you don't think that the North Carolina Supreme Court decision was correct? That is, you don't think the control should remain local.


Molnar: Channel One would use whatever argument it can to make its tawdry bucks. The question of whether or not it's constitutional, despite their motives and intentions, is an entirely different thing. I think the North Carolina Supreme Court was led astray in the arguments. Schools are a creature of the state, not of local school districts. School districts are created as administrative contrivances of the state. If North Carolina wanted to disband all of its school districts tomorrow, it could. The ability of the state to regulate the schools strikes me as unassailable. Obviously the North Carolina Supreme Court disagrees. But I'm not sure constitutionally that's the final word on it. The federal Constitution reserves to the states all powers not explicitly granted to the federal government and education is not explicitly granted to the federal government; it's therefore state responsibility. It is not the primary responsibility of some school district which is itself a creature of the state. The federal government can't devolve powers that the Constitution reserves to it. It's like you can't sell your right to vote.

You bring up the Nation at Risk report at the beginning of the book, and you talk about how that led to this wave of corporate activism, and all the market ideas started flowering out of that. One thing that the corporate world certainly has is money. And this sort of touches on the later chapters on charter schools and privatization and that is: Are the public schools suffering from a huge PR problem? Is the crisis in education in some large way a huge corporate PR boondoggle to allow the public opinion to be more sympathetic to all these market ideas?
Corporate executives are all over on public education. Again, what corporate executives do best is serve their own purposes. I mean, we are fast evolving in this country a kind of mandarin class of wildly overpaid prima donnas called CEOs. So the first people they serve is themselves, the second people they serve are their corporate shareholders or owners and so on. I think schools figure in some of this thought but only insofar as they might be able to use the schools to solve a public relations problem. Like Waste Management provides college scholarships to students at Carver High School in Chicago because they had this huge fine for dumping toxic waste in that neighborhood. That really doesn't have anything to do with education per se, it's just, "What the hell can we do to get out from under this public relations blemish?"

Some corporate executives are fairly enlightened. If I had to choose the educational values that they express personally, I would support them as opposed to many other folks. And other corporate executives see education as either a market to be exploited--I think Louis Gerstner, Jr., [CEO of IBM] is a prime example of that--or they see education as a cost to be contained. So I think corporate executives are just all over the map. These market-based school reforms are gaining adherence because anybody who's taken a look at the demographics at all realizes that with public education setting record enrollments--and it will continue to increase for about the next eight years--the potential tax liability is enormous. So the question: is how do you contain the cost of that? If you look at the tax structure of most states, it doesn't take a genius to realize that corporations are going to have to pay more. Unless something gives, they gotta pay more because the people who had been footing the bill can't afford to anymore.

I think a lot of this sympathy is based on a fairly straightforward calculus as: this is a way of reducing our tax liability. These reforms are not only consistent with our basic ideological predisposition--I mean, I kind of like the idea of "the market," I like the sound of "competition," and all of this other stuff--but, Christ, they probably cost less. There's a lot of things that go into building corporate support or consensus about so-called market-based school reforms, privatization.

But in terms of getting the public to buy into it then, with charter schools or the experiments in privatization...
I don't think corporations are largely the people pushing the public relations thing. I think where you look elsewhere to well-financed right-wing operations, the whole network of right-wing foundations.

Like the Milwaukee examples . . .
Oh yeah, the Bradley Foundation. You can't even think about the fight over private school vouchers without the Bradley Foundation. One of the things that's obscured is that for the most part these reforms aren't very popular (laughs), they don't command majority support, but they do have an awful lot of money and an awful lot of visibility--much more than they could command without this right-wing money.

So looking at, specifically, voucher programs, privatization of public schools, and charter schools. Are these unnecessary reforms?
Oh yeah, they're completely unnecessary. They have nothing to do with improving the quality of public education. They're based on a particular ideological premise, and that is that competition and the marketplace necessarily produce improvement. They're based on a kind of wacky analysis of why some schools don't succeed very well. And the analysis is that somehow these schools that are in thrall to teacher unions and others could do much better if they were liberated from these union protections and these bureaucracies. These people need to feel competition. Now, anybody who's spent ten minutes in an inner-city school with 35 or 40 kids in a classroom would not first leap to the conclusion that the best thing you can do for the teachers is take away their union protection. How are we going to improve the quality of instruction in this class? The first thing that a sensible observer would say is take about half of the children and give them their own teacher. That's the first thing. But that costs money, real money.

So then a two-part question: is it fair to say that the school reforms you advocate are fairly undramatic, relatively simple things?
They're relatively simple things that happen to have a very strong research base of support, unlike the privatization reforms where there's evidence it goes the other way, that they don't work.

And how does your assessment of school reform dovetail with the recent Education Week "Quality Counts" report?
I haven't read the Education Week.

I'm sure you've heard about it in the press or whatever.
Yeah, but I haven't read it. Tell me a little bit about it.

It came out last week, I believe, it's also on their website, where you can get the full report. It's actually a state-by-state analysis of each of the fifty states, looking at that state's school system. It's very much focused on the things you bring up in your book, although it has them in broad categories. It assigns a letter grade for each state based on how it thinks it performs.
To me, the heart of talking about student performance and achievement and so on is the curriculum and the instructional program of the school, and not some kind of exotic theory of economics imported into the governance of schools. If you take a look at the rhetoric surrounding private school vouchers, the most important book promoting vouchers was Politics, Markets and Schools by Chubb and Moe. If you read that book, it shows almost a disdain for democracy. What's the problem with the schools? According to Chubb and Moe, there's three problems with the schools: they're overly bureaucratic, the teachers unions have too much power, and democracy doesn't work. In other words, people are able to influence schools to get schools to do what they want, and that's bad. So what's the solution to this? Make schools less bureaucratic, bust the unions, and get the hell rid of democracy and replace it with the market. There you have it.

It seems that even though they may be really well-funded, voucher systems fail. I know in the South in particular a lot of public school board slates of candidates who advocate vouchers or whatever don't get elected; they're not succeeding down here. That's because it's an unpopular reform! People don't like it. They tried it in the South after Brown v. The Board of Education. It's a terrible idea. Probably that's why a lot of the public schools in the South are terrible: because they've got all these rotten private academies.

Do you think that the failure of Lamar Alexander's GOP nomination... [Alexander was the Secretary of Education under George Bush. Before accepting that position, he was a key investor in Chris Whittle' failed Whittle Communications, the developers of Channel One and the Edison Project. Alexander is one of the country's most high-profile proponents of private school vouchers.]
Oh, he's coming back. Right now they've got Lamar Alexander on IV over at the Hudson Institute, they're keeping that vampire alive. That's sort of their farm club. They give these felons cash flow to keep them in the public eye. And right now, he and Michael Joyce [President of the Bradley Foundation, a "militantly conservative" charitable foundation] and Sam Nunn of all people are going to tell us about family values, just like Bill Bennett is going to lecture us on virtue.

Do you think that there has been, at least to some degree, a public repudiation of his ideas, or of Newt Gingrich's ideas, just by virtue of the fact that their programs are not successful?
I don't think the public cares about their ideas. I don't think the public's ever thought about their ideas. These people are responding to the political ideology of their patrons. It's as simple as that. Lamar Alexander by all accounts is a bright guy. He's also probably a crook. He should probably be in jail. So I have no idea what Lamar Alexander believes or doesn't believe really. But I do know that he's certainly very, very responsive to the people that care for him and feed him.

To what degree to you think school reforms hinge primarily on money, on cash infusions. You talk about reducing class size... There will be no large-scale school reform in this country until and unless we have adequate funds devoted to education. We have the most inequitable form of public school financing in the industrial world. Period. We're just not going to do better until those issues are addressed. It's as simple as that. You'll find some schools doing better, some worse. But as a general proposition, we're not going to see overall improvements. Just like you won't see overall improvement in public health unless and until every American has access to health care.

Would you advocate at the very least removing the [public school] tax revenue from its dependency on property taxes.
I don't know. I don't think that there's a single way to do that. I think that that issue is very, very complex. Some people have advocated a kind of state-wide property tax, in which you have a formula which serves to see that the tax burden on property is equally assessed. It takes into account different valuations and so on. If you have a state-wide property tax, you don't create these islands of despair and islands of privilege in relation to tax revenue. I think it's probably a good idea to have local schools connected to local revenue sources to some extent. Otherwise you get what Proposition 13 did to California, which is, it actually made the schools much more dependent on the state of California. And the state of California basically screwed the schools every time it had a revenue crisis. It didn't make things better, it made them worse.

The goal is equity; how you arrive at it can be answered a variety of ways. I don't have the answer to that. I think the Kentucky plan is a pretty good one. It's what's called a modified foundation plan, where a certain amount is guaranteed to every school district. If the school district wants to raise more money, the state will match it up to a certain amount. If the school district wants to spend more, it's on its own. But there's a cap on how much more a school district can spend. In other words, there's a limit to the disparity that Kentucky will tolerate in educational spending between districts. That connects the interests of high-spending districts to the interests of low-spending districts, because for a high-spending district to be able to spend more, it has to raise the foundation for everybody. I kinda like that.

That's a fairly recent reform, right?
Last ten years.

Oh okay, I thought it was more recent than that even. One thing I felt was important about your book is that it counters the avalanche of PR that comes out from these groups, these right-wing think tanks that talk about the need for market reform. Really, there's not much information out there to counter it.
These guys are very good. And you can't go to so-called liberal foundations to counter them because liberal foundations represent corporate money. The orientation of foundations is always going to be center right. And I think we need to revisit the debate over the creation of tax-exempt foundations that took place early in this century. I think it was a wrong decision to allow them. I don't think there ought to be any tax-exempt foundations. If Michael Joyce wants to spend corporate money, then let him spend corporate money, but it's money that's already been taxed. I don't think that the people of the United States ought to be subsidizing corporate interests, which are overwhelmingly what foundations are, in order to pursue what their particular agenda is.

Boy, but it sure butters a lot of people's bread.
It sure does. A lot people say, well, why can't we counter the right wing? You can't counter the right wing because foundations are the wrong horse to ride. You'll never get foundation money to counter the right wing.

What about people locally, what do you recommend for resources? You list the organizations at the back of your book, but what's immediately accessible for people to counter the messages?
Immediately accessible is their colleagues. I mean, really, what people have to look to is each other. They've got to go to the principal, they've got to go to the school board, and they have to go to their legislators, which are actually very close. Those people can be pressured. It would be very, very useful just to eliminate the tax deduction on advertising in schools. That would be an enormous achievement.

This would be done state by state, or at the federal level?
At the federal level. At the state level you could simply prohibit advertising in schools. Legislators would be a little leery of that because they'd want to shove it off on local control, not wanting to alienate their corporate sponsors.

But clearly the federal tax exemption is ultimately going to be the bigger boon for them so if you take that away, then that's much less incentive.
That's right, it would probably shut down a lot of it.