The legislation, from U.S. Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.), is so broad that it could make it difficult-and expensive-to provide schools with magazines and computers; try out new cereals and software; and offer fund-raising programs, critics said. They argue that those programs benefit students and often are approved by local school boards.
"I suspect that this will make anything with a commercial context more worrisome to school people," said Garry Myers, CEO of Highlights for Children, a company that publishes a magazine with the same name that contains no ads. Under the proposed legislation, Highlights could be forced to seek permission for teachers to distribute subscription forms.
"If the law has the effect of reducing the number of teachers that participate, driving up the costs to kids, it's not good," he said.
Rep. Miller said his legislation, introduced as an amendment to the Elementary & Secondary Education Act now headed to the House floor, will give parents more say in what happens in schools. Marketers wanting to do research at schools would first have to be given parents' OK, even if the information they seek is not personally identifiable.
"George Miller believes that commercial contracts will continue if schools and commercial companies want to enter into them, but that there should be a minimal administrative threshold similar to field trips or going on a school bus trip for parental permission," said Daniel Weiss, Rep. Miller's press secretary. He also noted the bill allows ads in schools and affects only research activities. The legislation is supported by Consumers Union and the National PTA.
Marketers, publishers and some school administrators contend the legislation would create a logistical nightmare that could prompt many districts to abandon beneficial programs, since districts face having to obtain written parental permission each time someone wanted to gather information from students.
LIKE A MANDATE
"We view this as a mandate. It is the federal government removing the local discretion of school boards," said Dan Fuller, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association.
Kevin Bonderud, a spokesmen for Kids in the Know, a lobbying group that represents children's publishers, test makers and some educational groups, said the legislation is too broad.
"The bill has much broader ramifications than most members realize, and it also sends a signal to teachers and schools that they shouldn't be working with outside groups that may be doing things that benefit the kids," he said.
In his amendment, Rep. Miller added several exceptions for when permission isn't required. Even so, marketing groups contend the legislation remains a major problem.
"If you take a school where kids aren't getting the breakfast they need and a food company comes in and offers to provide it on [the] condition that at the end of year, it gets to ask for a show of hands of which [items the] kids liked the best, isn't that a decision for a local school board?" said Jeff Perlman, senior VP, American Advertising Federation.
Lauren Hall, exec VP of the Software & Industry Information Association, said schools and marketers together can create valuable programs. "If a school wants to work with a software publisher or a content provider, it ought to have the right to do that. It is not the prerogative of the federal government to intrude."
Dan Jaffe, exec VP of the Association of National Advertisers, said narrower legislation is needed. "There may be some ad practices that are harmful. They should be singled out, rather than saying everything is bad," he said.