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Readin’, writin’ and global warmin’ … Members of the Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) Board of Trustees were asked recently to put their official okey dokey on a $500 grant to the district’s elementary and secondary schools. The grant offer came as part of an Education Alliance program which, as of June, had shelled out $39,500 to 79 schools across Montana. Nationally, the program has awarded grants to 3,000 schools in 42 states and the District of Columbia totaling $1.5 million, paying for new computer equipment, kindergarten literacy programs, scholarships and after-school “homework clubs.”

Sounds fairly innocuous, right? Not so fast, says MCPS trustee David Merrill, who took issue with the source of this corporate largesse: multinational oil giant Exxon Mobil. Based on statements made during the Oct. 9 MCPS board meeting, Merrill isn’t exactly comfortable with the “corrupting influence” that such corporate dollars are having on public education.

“There is a place for commerce in our society. But who can seriously dispute that this influence often goes too far?” Merrill asked his fellow board members. “I think the schoolhouse door should be one protective barrier.”

Merrill points out that large corporations like Exxon Mobil have been among the worst culprits for the decline in public education funding, having spent millions of dollars schmoozing Congress into cutting their corporate tax bills, which, he notes, dropped from 35 percent in the 1960s to 17 percent in 2000.

But as Merrill and others are now discovering, it may be harder to keep corporate logos off school walls than graffiti. Consider this: Recent studies have shown that tots as young as 12 months old can differentiate between specific product brands. Little wonder that Coke and Pepsi are paying some school districts $10 to $20 per student to get exclusive rights to sell their soft drinks on school grounds. Other companies are providing schools with “free” lesson plans, such as the Chips Ahoy counting game, in which students learn to add and subtract by measuring how many chocolate chips are in Chips Ahoy cookies, and the Campbell’s science lesson where students compare the viscosity of Prego sauce to its less saucy rival, Ragu. Exxon Mobil reportedly has its own ecology curriculum to teach students how clean the environment of Alaska is since the Exxon Valdex spill. Add to this trend the more blatant ad creep coming from the television network, Channel One, which now reaches more than 8 million children in 12,000 schools nationwide. Channel One provides two minutes of commercial programming directly into the classroom for every 10 minutes of “content.”

Still sound harmless? Then put this one in your pipe and smoke it: After RJR Nabisco bought K-III Holdings, which publishes the kid-oriented magazine, Weekly Reader, anti-tobacco articles there decreased from 62 percent to 24 percent. If that story gets you down, then mull over the one from Adbusters, the Vancouver, B.C.-based magazine and media foundation devoted to “culture jamming,” which reported recently that representatives of Eli Lilly and Company, manufacturer of the anti-depressant Prozac, are now offering to come into public schools and “teach” students about depression.

How did how did the rest of the school board react to Merrill’s objections? They voted to accept the $500 grant. Nothing like adding a little oil to make for a slippery slope.

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