Copy machines. Computers. Sports uniforms. PTSA newsletters. Weight-room equipment. Health textbooks. Calculators.
These are just a handful of the basic school necessities for which Blair must reach out to corporate America.
Principal Phillip Gainous says that schools with a wealthier student body have an advantage over Blair because, while every school in the county receives an equal aamount of funding, the potential for fundraising is unequal between schools. "Schools that are more affluent, their parents can make up the difference," Gainous says. "Ours can't do it. So either our students will be at a disadvantage, or we have to raise our own money."
In order to close the gap, Blair turned to an exclusive ten-year contract with Pepsi Cola Soda Company; in exchange for $55,000 in disposable spending money a year, Pepsi is awarded a captive market of more than 3,400 impressionable, sugar-craving teens.
The back of the can
While the deal might seem sweet, there are problems. Soda is first and foremost a large health issue for students. Each 12-ounce can of Pepsi or Sprite contains about 150 calories, ten teaspoons of sugar and between 34 and 55 mg of caffeine. These unhealthy ingredients carry many nutritional problems, from osteoporosis to kidney stones to tooth decay, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The addictive caffeine content of soda only perpetuates these health risks. A recent University of Minnesota study shows that children deprived of their daily serving of soda go through withdrawal symptoms. Roland Griffiths, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, says that based on his studies, it is the mood-altering and physical addictiveness of caffeine, not the taste, that makes cola so popular.
A School Full of Teenage
The captivity of the teenage market in schools not only increases chances of addiction to soda but also gives companies a unique advantage over some of the most powerful consumers in America. Jean Kilbourn, a commercialism expert and author, says, "If advertisers can get young people to choose a certain brand when they are young, it will develop a habit that persists through adulthood." In school, students don't even have the freedom to choose; the nature of exclusive contracts is such that they have only one option. Blair promotes Pepsi and the formation of lifetime Pepsi drinkers just by signing the contract.
This promotion proves detrimental to the message about health and standards that teachers promote in the classroom. Alex Molnar, an expert on commercialism and education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says that schools permit blatant advertising by allowing vending machines and that corporations are presenting ideas "that contradict the very messages the schools are offering in their own health and nutrition classes."
Room for change
Maddalena Bianchini, Blair's Food Service Manager, points out another contradiction in the message from the school board about education, and principals' accountability for funding. She says that it is not Gainous' responsibility to make up for the lack of money, regardless of the fundraising technique. "If the [school] board allows sports and activities to be at the school, they should make sure they can pay for them," she says. "I don't think it's the principal's job to be a Wall Street broker."
While MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast promised an "equitable, not equal" distribution of funds at the beginning of his term, says Gainous, this promise has not been fulfilled, because wealthier schools protested such a distribution. "When [Weast] tries to give a bigger chunk to the schools that need more, the schools that need less say, ‘Wait a minute,' and [those richer schools] got the power," says Gainous.
An argument to this effect is the contrast between Whitman's three student-use vending machines as compared to Blair's 25. To provide students with a clean environment and the materials that they need, officials county-wide must recognize the need for equitable, not equal, redistribution of funds.
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