August 29th, 2001

Company's $500 Carrot to Teachers Questioned

By Eric Hubler
Denver Post

A marketing ploy by in-school broadcaster Channel One that offers teachers $ 500 to sign up new schools may violate Colorado’s ethics law, officials said this week.

And even if it doesn’t, Colorado’s education commissioner said the arrangement is just weird.

New York-based Channel One has been controversial since its launch in 1990 because a 12-minute news program for sixth- through 12th-graders contains two minutes of commercials. The broadcaster gives free video gear to schools if they promise to show the program.

Twelve thousand schools nationwide, including 81 in Colorado, participate. That may not be not enough for owner Primedia Inc., whose stock is trading near a 52-week low.

Thus the novel pitch to teachers, which the company calls ‘Share It!’

‘This appears to fall under the Colorado code of ethics for government employees,’ including teachers, said Ken Lane, spokesman for Attorney General Ken Salazar.

The code says public employees must not be ‘engaged as counsel, consultant, representative or agent’ to a business they deal with in an official capacity.

Added Becky Wissink, president of the Denver teachers union: ‘I just don’t think it’s right. You can have your license removed.’

The issue was raised by Commercial Alert, a Ralph Nader-founded organization that says schools are too commercialized. The group asked all state attorneys general to investigate.

‘It’s offering to compensate school employees for being on Channel One’s sales force, and that’s absolutely inappropriate because school employees’ loyalty belongs to the taxpayers and students and parents of Colorado,’ said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert.

Channel One spokeswoman Sonya McNair called the offer ‘sort of an honorarium, an appreciation for sharing the important service that Channel One provides.’ The program just started, and nobody has asked for the money yet, she said.

Lane said violations, if any, would be handled by local district attorneys. Teachers who take the money could be fined and prosecuted, he said.

Some metro-area school districts have used Channel One for years, often with misgivings.

‘It’s a mixed bag of worms,’ said Joe Burton, principal of Gateway High School in Aurora. Some students pay attention and learn about the world, but many ignore it and chat, he said.

Cherry Creek’s seven middle schools took Channel One in 1993, but are ditching it as they can afford to replace the free equipment.

‘It was taking time away from instruction,’ said spokeswoman Tustin Amole.

Denver’s George Washington High tried Channel One for a year, but Denver Public Schools decided not to sign a standard three-year contract. Loss of class time was an issue, but the biggest roadblock was that DPS’ own sponsors objected. Channel One advertised Coke, for example, while DPS has an exclusive marketing deal with Pepsi.

State Education Commissioner William Moloney said he approved use of Channel One as superintendent of the Easton, Pa., schools. But he never heard of any company soliciting teachers in this way.

‘That sounds a little exotic, if not outright bizarre,’ he said.

Moloney called Channel One’s programming ‘pretty low-grade,’ but he wanted the free equipment for his district.

Principals said they were uncomfortable with the Channel One marketing plan.

‘I’m not crazy about it,’ said Gateway’s Burton, though he added that if a teacher who genuinely liked Channel One recommended it, he didn’t see the harm.

‘I think there’s a fine line there with a conflict of interest,’ said Elmer Manzanares, principal of Denver’s Grant Middle School. ‘Teachers aren’t getting compensated for the hard work they do - I’m the first one to get onto that bandwagon - but not at the risk of hurting kids.’

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