Rod Paige, George W. Bush's nominee to run the Education Department, has been praised as a tough administrator who brought a reformist rigor to the job of superintendent of the Houston schools. But under his tenure, the Houston Independent School District joined one of the cheesier recent trends in public education: the boom in exclusive contracts with soft-drink manufacturers to peddle high-sugar sodas in schools.
The sale of exclusive ``pouring rights'' is perhaps the least wholesome of all the corporate marketing gimmicks that lately have found their way into public education. Typically, these contracts require the schools to promise to sell a certain number of sodas a year. This transforms the school's role from simple provider of vending machines (can anyone remember that the mere presence of soda machines in schools was once controversial?) to active peddler of the sodas.
The agreements specify the number and placement of vending machines and the number of hours they will be open to kids, pressing as far as possible past the spirit of federal rules that bar schools from selling sodas in cafeterias during lunch time, on pain of losing subsidies for their breakfast and lunch programs. In exchange, schools get everything from new athletic facilities to scholarship funds.
So while health teachers are instructing kids on the food pyramid, and on all the malign effects of too much refined sugar, the message beyond the classroom door is to drink up -- long as you're drinking Coke, or Pepsi, or whatever brew is paying the bill.
Two years ago, just as the pouring-rights trend was exploding, the Center for Science in the Public Interest issued a report titled ``Liquid Candy,'' which explains why the schools' surrender on this issue is a signal failure of their responsibility. Start with the obvious fact that sodas promote tooth decay and obesity, which is steeply on the rise among American children. Add in the fact that as soda consumption by teens has roughly doubled over the past 20 years, their consumption of milk has dropped by almost half. ``One of the biggest dietary changes in teen-agers is that 20 years ago, teen-agers were drinking almost twice as much milk as soda pop,'' says Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI. ``Now they're drinking twice as much soda pop as milk. That is particularly of concern in teen-age girls, who should be developing bone mass, so they won't develop osteoporosis later.''
The center estimates the average teen exceeds his or her recommended intake of refined sugar every day with the consumption of sodas -- alone -- before you add in whatever other sugars that person may be consuming.
School districts in San Francisco and Seattle have explicitly banned contracts with soda makers. But elsewhere the practice is spreading fast. The Center for Commercial-Free Public Education estimates pouring-rights contracts roughly doubled in 1998 alone, from about 50 to 110 school districts. Andrew Hagelshaw, the center's senior program director, told a researcher that the agreements are ``happening so fast we can't keep track of them.''
It may not be fair to single out Houston, which last year signed a contract with Coca-Cola worth a little more than $5 million over five years. At least they didn't emulate their brethren in the Grapevine-Colleyville School District, further north in Texas, where officials sold space on a high school's rooftop for Dr. Pepper ads that could be seen by planes landing at the nearby Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Or in Colorado Springs, where a district administrator panicked over his school system's failure to meet Coke's annual soda quota. ``Fast Food Nation,'' a new book by journalist Eric Schlosser, quotes a memo in which this official listed ways schools might up their consumption, including letting students bring their Cokes to class.
But the team of Bush and Paige does have a striking chance to show what it values. Bush claims to be passionately committed both to public education and to the rights of business. But here is an area where these two priorities are clearly in conflict. A Republican president, with his secretary of education, could plausibly hope to shame American educators and school boards out of their dependence on the soda subsidy. Unless he puts a higher value on the great American freedom to develop brand loyalty among 13-year-olds. I'm not holding my breath.
© 2001 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press