The Denver Post
Wednesday - August 29, 2001

Company's $500 carrot to teachers questioned

By Eric Hubler
Denver Post Education Writer

Teachers from 230 Southern California schools were among thousands across the West who flipped burgers and served Happy Meals on Thursday for McTeacher's Night, a fund-raising partnership of McDonald's restaurants with local schools.

What had been an annual event at some McDonald's franchises expanded this year to 1,200 restaurants and as many schools in 14 Western states.

At a McDonald's in Garden Grove, Jennifer Fu, a kindergarten teacher at Woodbury Elementary, filled boxes with french fries and slid them under a heat lamp as the line of customers stretched out the restaurant doors.

"I'm pretty hot back here," said Fu, 25, as she salted the fries. "But I'm fine. It is for our school. The turnout says it all. The kids are so excited."

Cathy Joseph, 45, was at a table eating as son Aaron, 7, nibbled and played with a movie toy that came with his meal.

"It creates a family atmosphere," Joseph said of the event. "It gets the community involved."

The fund-raisers are unpopular, though, with critics of the increasing corporate presence in public schools. They say the partnerships are merely ways for companies to market themselves to impressionable youngsters.

"No matter how much money McDonald's is giving, it doesn't compare to how much they will be making" in customer loyalty, said Emily Heath, senior program director for the Oakland-based Center for Commercial-Free Public Education. "If McDonald's wants to grant $1 million and get a plaque of recognition, that is one thing, but why make it contingent on people buying their product?"

Children are inundated with advertising outside school, Heath said, but "public schools should be different. When we open the doors to corporations, it changes the mission of the schools, which is to educate our children."

Restaurants taking part in McTeacher's Night donate 20% of the evening's sales from designated registers to neighborhood schools. Organizers said they expect to raise $1 million total this year--an average of $800 for each participating school.

Woodbury Principal Barb Stokke said the money is welcome.

"There are so many things we need," she said as she wiped tables Thursday. "Materials for the classrooms, the library. . . ."

Woodbury is one of 30 schools participating in Orange County. In Los Angeles County, 145 campuses signed up this year.

In east Hollywood, more than 100 children from Ramona Elementary School came with their parents to the McDonald's on the 10000 block of North Western Avenue. Children called to their teachers, hugged them and laughed at their cooking caps.

"I think they're all funny-looking," said Maria Guadalupe Espitia, 10.

Principal Susan Leo Arcaris acknowledged criticism over the alliance with the fast-food chain, but said of the young diners, "We can tell them to eat carrots, celery and apples, but it's not going to make a big difference."

McTeacher's Night started several years ago with some franchises and local campuses.

Franchisees in Southern California this year decided to coordinate their efforts and encourage more participation. Corporate officials at McDonald's backed them by pledging $100 to each participating school.

Gov. Gray Davis earlier this month proclaimed Nov. 15 "McDonald's Teacher Night."

Many school officials said marketing and brand names are a fact of life, and if a company gets some recognition for a good deed, what's the harm?

"When a company is willing to do something to support our schools, . . . we are not coercing anyone, and there is no other impact but getting money, I feel OK," said Barbara DeHart, superintendent of Westminster School District, where four campuses participated Thursday.

As long as educators are vigilant about what benefits students and what is pureA marketing ploy by in-school broadcaster Channel One that offers teachers $ 500 to sign up new schools may violate Colorado's ethics law, officials said this week.

And even if it doesn't, Colorado's education commissioner said the arrangement is just weird.

New York-based Channel One has been controversial since its launch in 1990 because a 12-minute news program for sixth- through 12th-graders contains two minutes of commercials. The broadcaster gives free video gear to schools if they promise to show the program.

Twelve thousand schools nationwide, including 81 in Colorado, participate. That may not be not enough for owner Primedia Inc., whose stock is trading near a 52-week low.

Thus the novel pitch to teachers, which the company calls 'Share It!'

'This appears to fall under the Colorado code of ethics for government employees,' including teachers, said Ken Lane, spokesman for Attorney General Ken Salazar.

The code says public employees must not be 'engaged as counsel, consultant, representative or agent' to a business they deal with in an official capacity.

Added Becky Wissink, president of the Denver teachers union: 'I just don't think it's right. You can have your license removed.'

The issue was raised by Commercial Alert, a Ralph Nader-founded organization that says schools are too commercialized. The group asked all state attorneys general to investigate.

'It's offering to compensate school employees for being on Channel One's sales force, and that's absolutely inappropriate because school employees' loyalty belongs to the taxpayers and students and parents of Colorado,' said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert.

Channel One spokeswoman Sonya McNair called the offer 'sort of an honorarium, an appreciation for sharing the important service that Channel One provides.' The program just started, and nobody has asked for the money yet, she said.

Lane said violations, if any, would be handled by local district attorneys. Teachers who take the money could be fined and prosecuted, he said.

Some metro-area school districts have used Channel One for years, often with misgivings.

'It's a mixed bag of worms,' said Joe Burton, principal of Gateway High School in Aurora. Some students pay attention and learn about the world, but many ignore it and chat, he said.

Cherry Creek's seven middle schools took Channel One in 1993, but are ditching it as they can afford to replace the free equipment.

'It was taking time away from instruction,' said spokeswoman Tustin Amole.

Denver's George Washington High tried Channel One for a year, but Denver Public Schools decided not to sign a standard three-year contract. Loss of class time was an issue, but the biggest roadblock was that DPS' own sponsors objected. Channel One advertised Coke, for example, while DPS has an exclusive marketing deal with Pepsi.

State Education Commissioner William Moloney said he approved use of Channel One as superintendent of the Easton, Pa., schools. But he never heard of any company soliciting teachers in this way.

'That sounds a little exotic, if not outright bizarre,' he said.

Moloney called Channel One's programming 'pretty low-grade,' but he wanted the free equipment for his district.

Principals said they were uncomfortable with the Channel One marketing plan.

'I'm not crazy about it,' said Gateway's Burton, though he added that if a teacher who genuinely liked Channel One recommended it, he didn't see the harm.

'I think there's a fine line there with a conflict of interest,' said Elmer Manzanares, principal of Denver's Grant Middle School. 'Teachers aren't getting compensated for the hard work they do - I'm the first one to get onto that bandwagon - but not at the risk of hurting kids.'

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