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Idaho teacher sells advertising space on tests

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JESSIE L. BONNER | March 25, 2009 04:52 PM EST | AP

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POCATELLO, Idaho — Good morning, class, and welcome to U.S. history, brought to you by Molto Caldo Pizzeria.

In a cash-strapped Idaho high school where signs taped near every light switch remind the staff to save electricity, an enterprising teacher has struck a sponsorship deal with a local pizza shop: Every test, handout and worksheet he passes out to his students reads MOLTO'S PIZZA 14" 1 TOPPING JUST $5 in bright red, inch-high letters printed along the bottom of every page.

"I just wanted to find a way to save money," said Jeb Harrison, who teaches history and economics. "We have to sell ads for our yearbook, for our school newspaper. I don't think this small amount of advertising will change my classroom."

School officials were not wild about the idea, but Pocatello High School Principal Don Cotant relented after Harrison explained the advertisements could help illuminate such topics as the Great Depression.

"I had concerns. I didn't know what this would open up for us," Cotant said. "But we've let this happen because it makes a point about what economic hard times can force people to do."

As school districts across the country face the worst economic outlook in decades, educators who have long reached into their own pockets to buy classroom supplies are finding creative ways to cover expenses. But selling ads on schoolwork is practically unheard of.

The 12,000-student school district in and around Pocatello _ an old railroad town of about 55,000, where Idaho State University and a semiconductor plant are among the biggest employers _ is looking at a shortfall of up to $10 million next year because of expected cuts in state aid. A tax increase was voted down last month, and school officials have frozen spending on field trips, teacher training and basic supplies such as paper.

Molto Caldo Pizzeria, about a mile from the high school, agreed to supply paper for Harrison's five classes _ 10,000 sheets, valued at $315, and imprinted with a pizza ad. That should be enough paper for the rest of this school year and all of the next one.

On a recent day, Harrison handed out photocopies of Dust Bowl images, emblazoned with the pizza ad. The ad also appeared on an economics test he gave last week on the Depression.

"I thought it was a great idea. I mean, the levy didn't pass. We can't get enough money from the state. We've got to find some way to get it," said one of Harrison's students, 17-year-old Benjamin Simms.

Marianne Donnelly, chairwoman of the school board, said the ad apparently violates a district policy barring schools from directly promoting businesses. But she said the board considers the ad harmless and is not making an issue out of it.

"Give the teacher credit for creativity," Donnelly said. "There's no question we're in desperate financial straits."

Elsewhere, nonprofit organizations are helping teachers obtain free or discounted classroom supplies, and Web sites match educators with benefactors willing to buy materials. But Harrison's approach has at least one critic worried the idea will spread.

"It crosses a line," said Susan Linn, a Harvard psychologist and director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "When teachers start becoming pitchmen for products, children suffer and their education suffers as well."

Earlier this school year in San Diego, Rancho Bernardo High School math instructor Tom Farber allowed students' parents and local businesses to pay $10 to print messages on quizzes, $20 for space on tests and $30 for final exams. Most parents printed inspirational messages, some started plugging their businesses. He raised $625 in one semester.

District administrators expressed concern that the practice could lead to legal problems if an ad were ever rejected, but Farber ended the practice before they could intervene. He sold his last ad in January, after making enough to get through the rest of the year.

"If the district says I can't do it, then they need to provide the money necessary for me to do my job," Farber said.

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On the Net:

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood: http://www.commercialexploitation.org