Classroom Commercials Chalk Up New California Controversy

Channel One, Whittle Communication’s tv service for schools, is heading toward a Western-style showdown in California. And the conflict, centering around the use of commercials in public schools, may ignite fires around the country.

The controversial service – a daily 10-minute newscast with two minutes of ad time – was renounced by both California’s Office of Public Instruction and New York’s Board of Regents when it debuted in ’89, and was banned from public schools in both states.

But while no New York public schools have signed on, two California high schools – Overfelt in San Jose and Gahr in Cerritos – defied the ban last fall, contracting with Whittle and receiving its free equipment (a satellite dish, video monitors and VCRs) and programming. Whittle’s contract stipulates that all classrooms receiving Channel One must show 90% of the programs.

According to William L. Rukeyser, spokesman for state superintendent William Honig, “State funds are paid for educational activity, not commercials. Schools don’t have the authority to sell off chunks of the school day or contract the services of their students.”

But the principals of Overfelt and Gahr high schools say they are convinced of the service’s educational value, and they’re willing to risk state revenue and a lawsuit.

Nadine Barreto, Gahr’s principal, says her school never could afford the equipment and news they get on Channel One for free. In addition, Jim Baca, Gahr’s general counsel, argues that the high school more than meets the minimum number of minutes required by the state for educational activities.

Baca notes that Gahr added two minutes to each school day to compensate for the ad time and that the state’s argument about selling student services is “conceptually unclear.”

Honig’s office, however, was not placated. Rukeyser argues that, by adding time, the schools simply have made their school day a little longer. They still are “improperly diverting time,” he explains. “Two minutes doesn’t seem like much, but it adds up to one full school day per year.”

Rukeyser anticipates that each school will be penalized an amount equal to one-half of 1% of the school’s budget, or roughly $30,000. Although the figure may seem small, funding for education in California is generally considered to be in a state of crisis, and any cut is bound to hurt. (A state budget crisis also has tightened funding for New York public schools, a situation that makes Channel One increasingly attractive.)

If funding is cut, the situation is expected to escalate into a statewide insurrection. Both schools have the overwhelming support of teachers, parents and students, who view the state’s actions as pure intimidation. Overfelt is in the largest high school district in California (it’s one of 11), and 20 additional California public schools have contracted with Whittle and are awaiting equipment installation.

Rukeyser says the schools are liable to change their minds when we “kick Overfelt in the assets.”

Should it be necessary, the two sides seem set for a legal showdown. Overfelt’s attorney refused to comment on the case. Gahr’s Baca hopes to stay out of court. “The state has been open to discussion. Our hope is that there can be some compromise position,” Baca says. “It would be consistent with everyone’s concern about the current fiscal crisis.”

Channel One, of course, has much to gain from a favorable outcome. Although Whittle has 6,900 subscribing schools across the country (roughly 80% of their national goal), it has only 88 – including private schools – in California. The California public school market could add another 824.

Gary Belis, spokesman for Whittle, admits his company would love to be in more California schools, but that Whittle “will reach its goal, with or without California.”

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