Maths and fizzics for the pupils of Dr Pepper

MY SON is barely out of kindergarten, but I have this vision of his graduation day some time in the next millennium. He will be wearing a gown that will not be black but a certain shade of red. In his hands will be the all-important diploma. It will read: "This education has been brought to you by Coca-Cola."

I may be wrong. The gown could be blue, and it will be Pepsi Cola that my wife and I will be saluting. Or a shade of green with bubbles. Cheers, Seven Up. My son's grades are great. (And he will drink you for ever.)

This is not far-fetched. While my son's is not yet among them, schools around the US are forging exclusive commercial relationships with the drinks corporations that, depending on your point of view, are either wickedly brilliant in ensuring benefits for all, or just wicked.

The most lucrative of these bargains was recently struck by Coca-Cola with the school district of Colorado Springs, in Colorado. Coke is paying the district $8m (pounds 4.8m) over 10 years, which, in return, will ensure that Coke is the only cola drink available on its campuses. Pepsi will be banned.

A similar bargain has been struck by the smaller Grapevine-Colleyville district in Texas. This time it is Dr Pepper-Seven Up that is shelling out - $3.45m over 10 years for exclusive vendingrights and permission to advertise in gyms, stadiums and even on the roofs of school buildings.

If debate is just beginning to take off about these deals, thanks should go to a student at Greenbrier High School in Evans, Georgia. He is Mike Cameron, a 19-year-old who took exception when his peers recently arranged a "Coke Day" for the school. Disgusted, he staged a Pepsi protest.

Greenbrier's Coke Day grew out of another Coca-Cola wheeze - a nationwide "Team Up with Coca-Cola" contest that will award $10,000 to the school designing the best plan to market Coke discount cards in a local market. For their Coke Day, Greenbrier students even arranged for students to stand in the yard all dressed in red and spelling out, guess what, Coke.

To the fury of all around him, Mike whipped off his red shirt to reveal another beneath with a large Pepsi badge on his chest. For that, he earned a day's suspension from the school principal. But Mike, who said he "likes to be an individual", is now the hero of the growing body of people objecting to the encroachment of corporations into classes.

It true that advertising in schools is hardly new. Back in 1989, for instance, Channel One first began persuading US schools to show its education television programmes on sets in classrooms that, of course, were interspersed with advertisements packaged specially for children.

The logic of drinks contracts is not hard to fathom. The drinks companies get to instil loyalty in the most important of segment of the population, children. And districts that participate become perfect test markets for the companies, which can study drinking habits and product preferences in the knowledge that the children are not at the same time sampling the competition.

The districts, meanwhile, simply get what they never have enough of, funds. Eight million dollars will buy a lot of computers and text books. But critics believe they may have taken the commercialisation of education too far. If God is no longer allowed in American classrooms, why in Heaven should Dr Pepper be welcomed? And who is to say it will stop with drinks companies? Two Illinois districts reportedly have approached Nike and Converse, two training shoe giants, to negotiate similar arrangements.

"It's a slippery slope," according to Marlin Schneider, a Washington State lawmaker who sponsored a recently passed law forbidding schools in the state from entering such agreements. "What's next? Some large company coughing up money and then telling the school's social studies department, 'We don't want you saying anything bad about our labour or investment practices?' "

Coca-Cola, by the way, decided to say nothing about trouble-maker Mike Cameron. Pepsi, by contrast, saw its chance. Brad Shaw, a Pepsi spokesman, suggested that Mr Cameron is a "trend setter with impeccable taste in clothes, and we're going to make sure he has plenty of shirts in the future".

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