An Interview with Alex Molnar
by Jay Huber ]
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.
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?
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?
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...
But wouldn't you object to that? They do definitely get a name recognition
thing out of it at the same time.
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.
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.
I guess the way the writer couched it...
In terms of the ad revenue.
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
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.
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.
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.
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. . .
I hadn't realized that the element of control was so completely removed
from the school.
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?
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...
Like the Milwaukee examples . . .
So looking at, specifically, voucher programs, privatization of public
schools, and charter schools. Are these unnecessary reforms?
So then a two-part question: is it fair to say that the school reforms
you advocate are fairly undramatic, relatively simple things?
And how does your assessment of school reform dovetail with the recent
Education Week "Quality Counts"
I'm sure you've heard about it in the press or whatever.
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.
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
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?
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.
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?
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.
Boy, but it sure butters a lot of people's bread.
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?
This would be done state by state, or at the federal level?
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.