It's no more than a truism: Today's kids are tomorrow's consumers. Truer still, they already are buying up a storm, if not with their own cash, then whenever their parents cave in to their cravings for a Hamburger Happy Meal or a new Smashing Pumpkins CD.
But they are also tomorrow's voters, workers, stockholders, lawmakers, corporate executives - industry's future.
Companies and trade groups have a hand in shaping young minds, by sponsoring materials that supplement customary curricula in America's public classrooms, from kindergarten through high school.
The topic, which is controversial enough to polarize views, is not new to the spotlight - even television networks CNN and ABC have taken a shot at it. Opponents say simply that private interests have no place in public schools. But the companies and their supporters - some of whom are teachers - say the materials are objective, informative and needed.
As part of the corporate pack, plastics and chemical firms show an interest in educating kids, particularly in matters of the environment. DuPont Co., Dow Plastics, Mobil Chemical Co., Procter & Gamble Co., the Plastic Bag Association and the American Plastics Council are just a few of the players.
Much of the debate turns on whether sponsored educational materials, or SEMs, are objective or biased. Environmental and consumer groups slammed P&G's now-defunct ``Decision: Earth,'' a quasi-environmental curriculum for grades seven to 12, for promoting deforestation and disposable diapers - a product that nets big bucks for the Cincinnati firm. In fact, SEM critics cite ``Decision Earth'' as a paradigm of what they think is radically wrong with such materials.
PBA President Ron Schmieder agrees that some SEMs have a hidden agenda. But, he doesn't think anyone reading PBA's ``Don't Let a Good Thing Go to Waste'' can determine that a plastics group produced it. The 25-page booklet is part of an information packet geared toward grade school teachers, with lessons and activities focusing on the six R's- reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic, recycle, reuse and reduce. Children learn about such concepts as landfills and composting via crossword puzzles, science projects, vocabulary lists and math problems. One lesson has them examining their home lifestyles to see what becomes of junk mail, yard waste, old clothes - and plastic and paper bags.
``It's good public relations, plus it takes care of a need,'' Schmieder said in a recent telephone interview.``We've tried to give a very balanced view of the solid waste issue.''
Although the recycling lesson lists a host of materials as recyclable trash, it spotlights plastic bags in accompanying illustrations.
Three PBA members produce plastic grocery sacks, including Schmieder's own Sonoco Products Co., where he is director of strategic planning.
Alex Molnar, education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said PBA's interest in SEMs probably has more to do with opportunity than responsibility. It could be a market-share issue, Molnar said, where plastic bags vie with paper bags for equal footing in classrooms. If PBA truly were committed to reducing waste, Molnar said, its SEM would include the option of using cloth bags - but PBA isn't likely to present views that undermine its profits.
The literature also doesn't address the dearth of curbside programs for plastic bag recycling. But, Schmieder said, 14,000 supermarkets nationwide have drop-off programs to take back plastic bags.
``We had this obligation to tell people what to do with these bags,'' he said.
The whole project cost PBA ``upwards of $150,000,'' Schmeider said.
Companies often seek help in developing SEMs. To construct its curriculum, PBA enlisted an agency that analyzed responses of focus groups composed of teachers.
To distribute it, the Pittsburgh-based trade group set up booths at state teachers' conventions, targeting the states of PBA members. So far PBA has put 10,000 copies in teachers' hands, Schmieder said.
Dissemination is key when creating SEMs, though the methods vary: toll-free numbers, blurbs in teaching magazines and newsletters, booths at state and national teachers conventions, direct mail.
Most SEMs are free, and the rest come cheaply, compared to nonsponsored materials, making them attractive to schools with budget constraints, according to the report ``Captive Kids,'' put out by Consumer Union Education Services of Yonkers, N.Y. And, many schools have no policy on SEMs, leaving individual teachers to decide whether the materials are biased and commercial or suitable for classroom use.
But the unregulated practice of ``catch as catch can'' yields random results, according to Molnar, who like many SEM critics, calls for a more structured formal review.
Even if the materials are well-prepared, the question remains of why corporations and trade groups want to produce them, said Molnar, who is writing a book on the subject, called Giving Kids the Business. Most companies are looking to sell something to kids or their parents -if not products, then ideas or a good-guy image, he said. Others want kids to believe they are committed to worthy causes, such as recycling. Or, he said, an industry with a perceived environmental problem may try to promote itself as a friend to the environment, as though there is no conflict of interest and ``we're all on the same side.''
``We'd never need lobbyists if that were the case,'' Molnar said. But the fact is, ``American corporate interests are unable ... to override the quarterly reports.''
Carole Glade, head of the National Coalition for Consumer Education in Madison, N.J., agrees that companies are in business to make money. But, she said, if businesses don't educate their customer base about their products, ``someone else will.'' Companies that ``want the exposure,'' however, should relay unbiased information that presents both the ups and downs of their industry and encourages good decision making.
Glade's nonprofit group helps various organizations develop pamphlets, filmstrips, videos, software and other wares to educate consumers, including schoolchildren. She said that a company's SEM gains credibility when it is co-sponsored by a nonprofit group, such as her own.
``We don't take policy positions. We don't lobby,'' she said.
Dow Plastics has taken such a tack for its next SEM project by teaming up with the National Science Teachers Association to produce an environmental curriculum for middle-school kids. One reason is NSTA's strong distribution network, according to Tony Kingsbury, Dow Plastics' manager for environmental business.
The Midland, Mich., firm's first SEM endeavor - ``What's It Made Of?'' - was made with Scholastic Inc. of New York, a leading youth publisher. The program, for grades three to five, is based on Lots and Lots of Pippindotz, a playful, rhyming work that ``roughly charts the history of plastics and its uses today,'' Kingsbury said.
Dow spent more than $200,000 for the Pippindotz books and cassettes, a color wall poster and stickers, promotional plastics literature and packet of resin, tagged ``Do not eat!''
Kingsbury said Dow wanted to counter the negative bent of what children were hearing about plastics with a credible educational program.
``We didn't want to put out the standard, preachy stuff that `plastics is good,' '' he said.
The approach is far from standard. And the narrative never utters the word ``plastics.''
Lots and Lots of Pippindotz is the story of a little girl, Lilly De Plume of Longfellow Lagoon, who finds an ``eensie, weensie dot'' (yes, comparable to a resin pellet) in her lunch box. When she carelessly discards it, the Chancellah of a far-off land magically appears to recount the history of how Pippindotz came to replace borbs, an unrenewable resource that once grew from the tusks of colorful creatures with elephant-like heads and big caterpillar bodies.
Jane Baumberg said she uses Pippindotz to show her elementary education majors at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee that ``companies aren't the big bad guy all the time.'' Baumberg, who teaches an environmental science class for the teachers-to-be, said she likes the book's conservation theme that ``everything you do has a consequence.''
``That doesn't just tie to your environment, but that ties to everything you do,'' she said.
The accompanying reading material, while slightly promotional, is not a blatant advertisement for either Dow or plastics, Baumberg said. She pointed out that even standardized textbooks are not without bias, though ``most of us assume otherwise.''
Although the Pippindotz project is past history, and Dow doesn't plan to reprint it, roughly 20,000 copies are in circulation, an investment of more than $200,000 for Dow, Kingsbury said. ``What's It Made Of?'' was free to teachers.
Like Dow, APC and DuPont have paired up with NSTA to produce and promote their learning kits. APC, no newcomer to environmental SEMs, decided to do something different this time, said spokeswoman Paula Cox.
``Hands On Plastics'' is just that: a series of hands-on, kid-conducted lab experiments using recycled resin samples, supplied by APC members.
APC directed the curriculum, but the National Middle Level Science Teachers Association developed it, Cox said. The purple carrying case, of 100 percent post-consumer plastic, is decorated with yellow handprints and bears both sponsors' logos.
Washington-based APC launched the science kit in March at NSTA's annual convention in Philadelphia, where it took about 500 orders at $10 each, ``to cover costs,'' Cox said. NMLSTA members get it free. APC produced only 5,000 kits for the first run.
``We didn't want to do a huge number, since there is always something to improve on,'' she said.
Like APC's project, ``Understanding Our Environment,'' funded by DuPont, hit classrooms for the first time this fall. DuPont asked NSTA to help tailor the program, which already had been successful overseas, for American schools. The Wilmington, Del., firm also wanted to debut it at NSTA's big March convention, which drew 25,000attendees. That timeline gave the teachers, who began writing the booklets and assembling the materials in late August, only seven months to see the project through, said Sheila Marshall, who spearheaded NSTA's crew.
Marshall said they virtually rewrote the program and added a Tyvek envelope of maps, charts, transparencies and posters from various sources, such as NASA, the National Geographic Society and the Washington Post.
``It was an absolutely frantic project. People worked through the night,'' she said by telephone from NSTA headquarters in Arlington, Va.
The booklets, written for grades six through nine, are titled Land, Water, Air, Life, Planet, People and Challenge.
In Challenge, students look into ``the cause of a fish kill on a river that runs through the fictional town of Oakwood,'' the booklet says. The students play the roles of key public figures, all of whom have a vested interest in the outcome of the investigation but must try to be impartial. One of its objectives, according to Challenge, is to help kids ``recognize the importance of accurate information and an informed citizenry in protecting and improving the environment.''
Although the Oakwood newspaper plays up the toxic chemical angle, the real culprit turns out to be spilled milk, the result of an overturned tanker.
``We need the public to have a better understanding of environmental issues, so they are making more informed decisions,'' said Dawn Rittenhouse, DuPont manager of business opportunities.
The firm funded the project and provided a photo of a coal mine and the Tyvek envelope, Marshall said, but NSTA did the writing, production and design.
``[DuPont] didn't interfere at all,'' she said.
But Michael Jacobson said companies generally have a ``strong hand'' in making these products. His Washington group, the Center for the Study of Commercialism, opposes the spread of commercialism, especially advertising, and encourages community involvement.
``I'm not saying all the materials are bad and dishonest,'' Jacobson said. ``[But] you can bet NSTA knows who's paying the bills.''
Molnar agrees that NSTA has ``no business'' teaming up with DuPont to produce SEMs. If companies want to be good citizens, they should pay higher taxes and let communities use the money to buy educational materials, he said.
``You can bet this stuff is written off as a marketing expense. You can bet every taxpayer in America is going to subsidize it,'' Molnar said.
Marshall said many companies come to NSTA with book ideas, some clearly wanting nothing but the group's name and endorsement - but those get turned away. DuPont has worked closely with NSTA on several projects.
This year the firm spent $1.7 million on environmental and educational programs, Rittenhouse said. Like many companies, DuPont pushes its SEMs in school districts where it operates facilities.
``Our real bottom line is we need a well-educated work force and a well-educated public ... as plants get more and more technical in the communities where we operate,'' she said.
Caroline Harwood, director of Earth Day Resources in San Francisco, believes the real bottom line for corporations is making a profit, not protecting the environment for future generations. EDR puts out its own school curriculum - covering solid waste, recycling and toxins - that is endorsed by the National Education Association.
``We don't pretend to be objective,'' she said. ``We're on the side of environmental groups and grass-roots movements.''