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Editorial

The Three Rs, plus coal

The coal lobby gained access to fourth-grader learners through Scholastic Inc., the venerable educational publisher.

May 26, 2011

Anyone who as a child looked forward to ordering new books from a colorful brochure handed out in school, or who eagerly thumbed through the "Harry Potter" series, has a soft spot for Scholastic Inc., the venerable educational publisher and purveyor of children's titles. Sad to say, the company has of late been abusing the trust it built over decades as a beloved presence in U.S. schools.

A division of Scholastic partnered with a coal industry trade group to produce an energy curriculum for fourth-graders — a poster and related materials — that extols the virtues of coal but neglects to mention the strip mining that degrades the landscape and removes entire mountaintops, the pollution of air and water associated with coal, or its role in global warming. The American Coal Foundation posted an online announcement about its joint project with Scholastic, which sent the "United States of Energy" package, free and unsolicited, to 66,000 teachers on its mailing list, including many in California, and emailed it to 82,000 more.

In this case, schools got what they paid for — a biased, incomplete and frankly embarrassing promotional product parading as education. We're reminded of the glossy lunch menus some school districts sent home with children in the late 1990s that showed colorful cartoons of dancing M&M candies extolling the virtues of healthful eating. Of course, no one knows how many teachers actually used the Scholastic/American Coal Foundation materials. It's quite possible that the vast majority of them tossed the freebie.

In praising its partnership with the educational publisher, the coal group noted that Scholastic has formed similar alliances with Coca-Cola and Home Depot. "Four out of five parents know and trust the Scholastic brand," the website enthused.

Maybe not so much anymore. In addition to this cynical, mercenary project, Scholastic lent its hand last year to a promotion for SunnyD, the corn syrup-sweetened beverage. Classes that collected 20 SunnyD labels could win free books; teachers were encouraged to hold SunnyD parties and create posters of the labels.

In a statement this month, Scholastic announced that it would review its policies, admitting it had not been "vigilant enough" with the coal partnership, although it did not concede there was anything wrong with the curriculum or with having private companies pay for glowing "educational" materials in an effort to promote themselves. The problem, according to the company, was simply how the joint venture looked to the public. Not quite. Though this was hardly a pact with Lord Voldemort, Scholastic has some serious soul-searching to do before it regains a full measure of trust.

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