Reselling access to our children
YNN's ad-sponsored TV has no business in Nova Scotia schools

Halifax Daily News February 28, 1999By Parker Barss Donham

At the heart of the public school system is an implied social contract: parents turn their children over to a school for 160-odd days per year; in return, children get a basic education most parents could not provide themselves.

As a corollary, parents and non-parents alike pay taxes to support this arrangement, and in return, get the benefits of living in a society with an educated citizenry.

Implicit in this contract are certain democratic compromises. A parent who wants his children to receive religious instruction might have to put up with a school that is too secular for his liking. A parent who believes writing and reading are critically important might have to put up with a school that places less emphasis on these skills than she would like.

Parents surrender some autonomy over the details of education policy so that all children can receive the benefits of an education whose broad shape is democratically decided upon.

But that's all they surrender, and school boards should be mindful of the limits on their mandate as they consider the latest proposal from the Youth News Network to bring television commercials into the school.

As a society, we have never agreed to let schools resell access to our children for non-educational purposes. And that is precisely what YNN is seeking.

Six years after furious parental objections persuaded the province to reject its inducements, YNN is once again offering Nova Scotia schools a collection of electronic equipment - satellite dishes, VCRs, monitors, video cameras, computers, and something it calls a "distance learning centre" - all without up-front investment by the school.

All the school has to do is agree to require its students to view a 10-minute daily newscast produced by YNN, and two-and-a-half minutes of commercials packaged with it. In addition, YNN would have the right to use the distance learning centre for private clients during non-school hours, in return for which, schools would get an unspecified cut of fees paid by those clients.

YNN is trying to buy two things here: (1) access to our children; (2) the use of expensive school buildings during off-school hours.

The worst thing to be said about the second part of this proposed bargain is that it might be a sucker's deal, akin to letting someone use your living room four hours a night in return for buying you a colour TV.

It's the first part of the proposed deal that's ethically offensive.

Once it has secured access to school children, for whom viewing will be compulsory, YNN plans to resell this access to commercial enterprises.

Imagine how attractive businesses will find it. YNN offers them something no other TV network can provide: guaranteed access to a captive audience, required by law to attend school, and required by the school to watch television. No zapper. No channel flipping. No wandering out to the fridge for a snack.

Education bureaucrats who nowadays spend most of their time finding ways to keep schools afloat on inadequate budgets may find it appealing too, as long as they don't think about it too deeply.

If they do give it any thought, here's what they will realize:

Schools, school boards, and parents would have zero control over the content and quality of YNN news programming, or over the nature of the commercials shown with it. Schools would have to sign on for five years.

Time spent watching commercials and whatever YNN's programmers decide will pass as news - it adds up to 7.3 school days a year - will either take away from time available for other educational programs designed by the professionals to whom we have entrusted our schools, or will be added on to the school year. The province hasn't decided which.

As for renting school facilities during non-school hours, such decisions should be made on the true value of the asset in question, the wear and tear such rentals would entail, and the nature of any competing school or community demands for its use. The keepers of these public buildings should not let a few electronic geegaws bedazzle them into offering bargain basement rentals.

Interestingly, YNN isn't trying to negotiate with school boards this time, as they did in 1992-93. It's making a direct pitch to 2,300 high schools across the country.

Unlike boards, which have to face periodic elections, school principals aren't directly accountable to parents and taxpayers. Perhaps YNN thinks it has a better chance of finding naive principals than of persuading entire school boards.

The company has hired the world's biggest public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton, to orchestrate the pending battle with indignant parents and educators, a battle YNN muffed badly last time.

A host of educational organizations have come out against the YNN plan, including the Nova Scotia Federation of Home and School Organizations, the Canadian Teachers Federation, the Canadian Association of Media Education Organizations, Alliance for Children and Television, Canadian Association for Media Education Organizations, Canadian Home and School and Parent-Teacher Federation, Conference of Catholic Bishops, Council for Canadians, and Parents Against Commercial Television in the Schools.

Even if the nitty gritty details of YNN's proposal made financial sense for schools - they do not - the provincial department of education and our seven regional school boards should reject it out of hand.

Parents have never agreed to let schools rent out access to their children, and wise educators will realize they have no moral authority to do so.

Copyright 1999 by Parker Barss Donham. All rights reserved.