A Public School Goes Commercial

The basic strategy of free-market champions is to discredit government and "starve the beast," in the infamous phrase of Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform — and then to go in for the kill by privatizing the assets that remain. The spoils of our once-great public institutions can then be bought for a song, and private market exploitation can be cast as serving the public good, because desperate institutions will welcome any help that they can get.

The latest appalling version of this drama is being played out in Peabody, Massachusetts, where the town's school committee unanimously voted to start selling advertisements for the various documents that the public schools send home with students. By putting ads on permission slips, class calendars and other school notices, the school committee hopes to bring in $24,000 at most.

The superintendent of schools, C. Milton Burnett, assured a reporter from the Boston Globe that the ads "will have to be age-appropriate, but we're thinking about ads from local pizza and ice cream shops, dance and karate schools, maybe from a florist or a college." Globe reporter David Abel writes:

School officials plan to send letters in coming days to solicit ads from more than 500 members of the city's Chamber of Commerce. They expect advertisers to pay $300 to run ads on some 10,000 sheets of paper in one elementary school. If a business wants to run ads for all elementary schools in the district, the cost will be $2,000.

The decision to seek a nontraditional source of revenue came as Peabody, like nearly every other district in Massachusetts, has coped with cuts in state aid and escalating costs for everything from contractual obligations to instructional supplies. As a result, Peabody school officials have this year had to lay off six teachers, two guidance counselors, and other staff.

They have also hiked fees for buses and sports. It now costs families with more than one child in the district as much as $600 a year to bus their children to school and $300 for them to play sports.

The scarcity of public dollars is clearly related to the bad economy. But it is also related to the hostility that so many Americans have toward taxes. Everyone seems to think that individual choices in the market will solve our problems — while taxes will only be wasted on “other people.” Here’s the revelation: those “other people” are us.

In Colorado Springs, Colorado, anti-tax sentiment has gotten so extreme, reports columnist Neal Peirce, that “the city has laid off more than 500 city workers, let street medians go to weeds, closed all its swimming pools and turned off a third of its streetlights.” The city has also cut all evening and weekend service by its public buses. In short, civic life as most people know it is being willfully dismantled, and let the chips fall where they may.

And how much do residents of Colorado Springs pay in property taxes? A ridiculously low $55 per person per year.

In other words, the people of Colorado Springs have trouble even conceiving of their shared interests. The idea of the common good or mutual support is incomprehensible — except the common good of lowering taxes. Self-interest is seen as totally unrelated to collective interests.

Not surprisingly, this libertarian, market-driven worldview has some nasty consequences for many citizens, especially the less fortunate. Peirce quotes James Brooks, program director for community development at the National League of Cities, who notes that "vending-machine government doesn't work if you care about social equity. When everything's based on a specific fee for service, where's the public good? Absent government, there is no commitment to civil society, no mutuality of interests and no shared responsibility."

This is what's so disturbing about stories such as the Peabody school officials: their weak to nonexistent sense of the common good and civic identity. To be fair, they face desperate circumstances; they don't have the kind of choices that wealthier school districts do. Still, plenty of other beleaguered towns are not selling themselves as billboards. Is the very identity of the school district worth $24,000? Should the attention of school children be monetized and their school experiences turned into a commercial zone? Why not use moments of crisis to reassert the fairness and efficiency of finding collective solutions?

The Peabody advertising “solution” is not an isolated case. It is following a path pioneered by the nearby school districts of Braintree and Beverly, which began selling ads on their businesses in 2002, followed two years later by the Berlin-Boylston regional schools. Three other towns in Massachusetts have approved advertising signs on their baseball fields.

Some people will point out that high school yearbooks routinely feature ads from local retailers, and that advertising is everywhere these days. Why shouldn't the beleaguered public schools be able to get their fair share of ad revenues?

For me, the answer is that some things are simply not for sale. Childhood should not become a commercial free-fire zone. Some things (such as education) are too important to our well being and too central to our identities as citizens to be commercialized. And where does it stop? Why not start selling ads on football jerseys, and put up billboards in the school hallways? How about sponsorships for science fairs? And so on. Indeed, since state laws require children to attend school, the public school systems could really make a killing off of their stewardship of children’s attention, competing with traditional advertising venues that are so “cluttered.”

There are some well-known mechanisms for asserting and managing our shared interests: taxes and government. And there are also lots of informal, self-organized means for pursuing our shared interests as citizens: community groups, PTAs, and much else. The "private sector" enjoys the benefits of educated citizens, public research and various civic institutions like the police, fire departments and schools. Why can't it pay its fair share and support public institutions without enclosing the educational commons? Must demoralized local governments sell themselves off for pitiful fees to advertisersmake ends meet?

It all gets back to the anti-government agenda: Starve the beast. Dismantle public institutions. Convert all citizens into consumers. Whether public officials like it or not, that's the message that they convey when they authorize plans to sell off our public institutions, piece by piece. And with so much economic need and fear all around, many people have lost sight of the common interest and are only too eager to accept whatever crumbs the market will hand them. Yes, the Peabody case is a minor event in the grand scheme of things. But it speaks volumes about the larger struggle over who — and whose values — shall govern.