Pop goes the district

Never mind the caffeine, Seattle's schools look at squeezing more nickels from soda-pop sales—and suing the state for big bucks.

Imagine a habit-forming psycho-tropic substance that can weaken children's bones and mess up their moods, sleep cycles, attention spans, and (maybe) nervous systems. It might even mimic (and be misdiagnosed as) attention deficit disorder. And what do the schools do? They sell it. In Seattle, they're even talking about finding more efficient and profitable ways to sell it, perhaps to even younger children.

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We're talking about caffeine, the stealth drug that is the real buzz of choice for A New Generation—as any parent who's not too zonked on stronger drugs has surely noticed. Check out who's chugging the Frappuccinos and Swirkles at your local coffee bars; milk-shake-like lattes have replaced milk shakes as a kiddie sweet treat. And that's just the tip of the ice cube. The main caffeine delivery system for kids is soda pop—and not just Coke and Pepsi. Many more sodas have much more caffeine, as Helen Cordes recounts in an alarming Nation article, "Generation Wired" (4/27). These range from good ol' Mountain Dew (the one kids used to sneak a charge back when parents actually tried to limit caffeine) to charged-to-the-legal-limit Jolt and Pepsi's pseudo-Brazilian Josta. (Josta actually means "shit" in Brazilian Portuguese.)

Consider that kids are drinking not just higher octane but Bigger Gulps. That teen soda consumption has tripled since 1978, and elementary-age consumption has doubled. That of the five top-selling sodas, only no. 4, Sprite, isn't caffeinated. And you thought it was only the sugar that was making them act that way.

With soda pop the biggest supermarket item, worth $11.7 billion a year, and with consumption dropping off sharply after age 25, its makers have plenty of means and incentive to push it on ever-younger drinkers. And so they do, in ways reminiscent of cigarette marketing. "We don't make a concerted effort to reach those under 12," one tells Cordes. "The only market available is to start them out younger and younger," another admits.

And how do the schools respond? More and more by signing exclusive deals with Coke or Pepsi for not only vending-machine but in-school advertising rights. This can yield grotesque outcomes, such as the suspension of a Georgia student for wearing a Pepsi T-shirt on "Coke Appreciation Day." But it can also give the schools a bigger share of the soda-pop take than the Seattle District's ambivalent, piecemeal approach.

In the early '80s the district gave up banning vending machines, figuring if it couldn't otherwise keep students from skipping over to 7-Eleven, it would let them buy their pop and junk food in school. It established rules as to what could be sold, where, and when, mainly matters of nutritional concern such as salt and sugar content (potato chips and Hershey bars were OK, Smokehouse Almonds and Baby Ruths weren't). They don't speak to caffeine, though they do order that soda pop only be sold after lunch. Seattle Schools spokesperson Chris Case concedes that, aside from a ban on vending machines in elementary schools, these "very outdated rules" are probably little heeded.

High schools and middle schools sign their own deals with vending machine companies, with proceeds going to fund sports and other activities. But as School Board member Scott Barnhart notes, "What do principals know about soda-pop machines?" The district's chief operating officer, Joseph Olchefske, concurs: "Most are great deals for the vendors, not for the schools."

So the district has solicited proposals from consultants to broker an exclusive, districtwide deal with a single soda vendor (read Pepsi or Coke). One hotshot proposes to do so for $49,500 and a share of 10 years' revenues. Some School Board members wonder why they can't skip the middleman and arrange such a deal themselves. And they cringe at one proposed change: lifting the ban on elementary soda sales. Barnhart, a physician, admits that as a doc he wouldn't recommend selling something as anti-nutritious as pop to kids.

But given their unhappy finances, how can the schools say no to soda money? It's a double-whammy consequence of the state's chronic underfunding of "basic education": The schools turn to wretched recourses like junk food, Channel 1, and other forms of in-school advertising to fill a few shortfalls—and then gnash endlessly over their propriety and take endless (perhaps deserved) hits for selling out. "We have to keep it in perspective," argues Barnhart. "This is a distracting and tangential issue when we're trying to raise academic achievement. Ninety-five percent of our problem [with achievement] is chronic underfunding, and 5 percent is things like [kids frazzled on] caffeine."

School officials have complained about that "underfunding" and its root cause, state funds levels, since busing was big news. The familiar irony is that that much-lamented system stems from the Seattle Schools' mid-'70s lawsuit forcing the state to fund "basic education," intended to eliminate the inequities of traditional local funding. The problem, from Seattle's view, is that the state's "three sizes fits all" formula (with three per-pupil funding levels, for regular, bilingual, and special-ed students) doesn't begin to address the range of health, social, economic, and other circumstances facing a large urban district like Seattle's. "We get $6,700 per special-ed kid," laments Olchefske, "and we spend up to $20,000 on each one." Topping it off was the 1993 educational-standards reform, which mandated what students actually learn without providing districts more funds toward that end.

"It's been 20 years since the last [funding] reform," declares Olchefske. "We're probably one of the last states to change the way we pay for schools." Once again, the Seattle district is trying to force a change. It's tried for a year and a half to muster allies in other districts and rouse funding-reform legislation, without tangible success. So at last week's board retreat the district took what Barnhart calls "the first concrete step" toward suing the state for more equitable and adequate funding. Its new general counsel, Mark Green, laid out a litigation strategy. The board directed him to keep working on it.

The board's senior member, Ellen Roe, opposed suing the state for funds in the '70s and early '80s, and still thinks it's a dumb idea: "When you ask for full funding, you ask for full control."

Barnhart and Olchefske concede that legislative solutions are always better than the "blunt instrument" of litigation. Maybe even better than selling soda pop?

Related Links:

The Nation


Seattle Public Schools


A "Mindful Rant" about advertising in the schools


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