Carbonated beverages may not constitute one of the four basic food groups, but you would have a hard time proving it by my 9-year-old niece, who, like many children her age, leads a very snack-oriented lifestyle.

Little wonder, then, that she was pleased as Hawaiian Punch when she returned from school one recent afternoon. Clutched in her fist were coupons for free meals from Pizza Hut and JB's Restaurants--rewards she said she'd earned for reading a few library books and not missing school for nine weeks.

As a concerned nonparent, I could scarcely believe the nonsense spewing forth from the fourth grader's mouth. In an age when "doing the right thing" is something of a national obsession, the American education system was actually sanctioning such hucksterism?

"Let me get this straight," I said. "If you do your reading homework, Pizza Hut is going to give you an individual pizza?" "Not an individual pizza," my niece answered testily. "At Pizza Hut, it's a Personal Pan Pizza."

I stood corrected, even though the child's intimate knowledge of the chain's trademarked jargon merely reinforced my suspicions. A few book reports and the kid was already beginning to sound like a high-priced corporate flack. Frightening.

Then the child began taunting her 5-year-old brother with mouth-watering details of the perfect-attendance award she'd soon be collecting from JB's. "I get a free hamburger, French fries, dessert and a drink," she boasted.

Undaunted when I pointed out the JB's freebie for simply showing up at school included neither drink nor dessert (Pizza Hut's reading program apparently doesn't extend to perusing the fine print on coupons), my niece continued to lord the greasy giveaway over her younger sibling's head.

"If we take you with us when we go to JB's, you'll have to pay for your meal," she announced tyrannically.

As her brother's whimpering escalated into full-scale bellowing, I got a queasy feeling about the whole idea of food-for-thought.

I was not alone, as I discovered when I compared notes with my friend Marge, mother of a second grader who attends school in Tempe.

Still smarting from an unpleasant dining experience at JB's some years ago, Marge told me that she'd sworn that her family would never return to the restaurant. "Of course, we had no way of knowing then that our son would one day win JB's coveted Gold Star Award for perfect attendance," she says sarcastically.

Unwilling to disillusion the tyke, Marge recently swallowed her pride and marched the family off to breakfast at a JB's. "The upshot was that we wound up spending $20 that day so he could redeem a coupon worth 99 cents," she reports. "The punch line to the whole thing? The poor kid was still so hungry after eating his two little pancakes that we had to buy him a regular meal anyway." Marge dismisses it all as "crass commercialism." "My first objection is that the schools are encouraging the kids to want to go to these places, yet the parents are ultimately the ones who are forking out all the money," she argues. "And it's not like you have much choice. You try telling the kid, `No, we're not going,' when he comes home from school all excited about winning one of these token awards."

Marge also questions the wisdom of transforming classrooms into Pavlovian food-a-ramas where pupils learn through commercially sponsored oral gratification.

"We shouldn't be rewarding the kids with so many externals," insists Marge, who suspects she'd be the scourge of the PTA if she ever made her views public. "Learning should be its own reward. What these programs are really teaching children is that there should be rewards for everything. And that's wrong--you should do something because you're morally or consciously bound to do them, not because someone's going to give you a ticket for a free pan pizza or a couple pancakes."

What's the view from the front of the class?
Daphne Atkeson, a former grade school teacher and a fairly recent mom, admits she has mixed feelings about education through eating. "You have to take a good look at whatever is going to motivate students," she says. "On the other hand, you would hope that they'd develop good learning habits that don't involve this tacky sort of bribery.

"These programs are a community service, sure," continues Atkeson, who stresses that her views don't necessarily reflect those of her current employer, the Arizona Education Association. "Still, I have a hard time believing these companies would be involved with the schools if the programs weren't bringing in customers. I'd be very interested to hear what these companies say they expect to get out of all this."

So would I.
I call JB's headquarters in Salt Lake City to find out about the company's Gold Star Award. A marketing assistant named Deann Clark tells me that the program is about three years old and currently involves 500 primary schools in ten Western states. I ask Clark why her company rewards children for doing something as basic as attending school on a regular basis. "We feel that it gives us interaction with the local community so the students are aware of JB's--that type of thing," she replies.

Gee, could she mean "advertising"--that type of thing?
So much for JB's. Why has Pizza Hut decided to realign the leaning tower of literacy?

For the answer to that one, I telephone The Carson Group, a Pittsburgh public relations firm that handles publicity for the pizza company's seven-year-old Book It! program.

Agency president Boris Weinstein reports that Pizza Hut inaugurated the program in response to then-President Reagan's 1985 request for the private sector to become involved in education.

Explaining that the program's advisory board of 17 education organizations reads like "a Who's Who" of American educators, Weinstein says, "This is now the largest reading program of its kind in America."

He backs up that staggering claim with some mighty staggering statistics. The program (open to students in kindergarten through sixth grades) currently operates in 15,000 out of 16,000 American school districts--a figure that translates into 40,000 schools, 680,000 classrooms and 17 million students.

Any way you slice it, that's a lot of Personal Pan Pizza. Not to mention a lot of hungry moms, dads, sisters and brothers who might tag along while little Egbert collects his award.

"I would imagine that some people might see this as commercial," acknowledges Weinstein. "And I would imagine that it does [generate business]." Still, Weinstein assures me that's not why Pizza Hut is doing it.

"There are a lot of companies in America that are very interested in responding to government appeals to become involved in education," he says.

My point exactly, I tell Weinstein, adding: Lots of companies want to worm their way into the classroom. This seems to rankle him.

What have I got against positive pizza reinforcement, anyway?
I answer his question with a question: Did Weinstein get where he is today by being plied with pizza in school?

"Pizza wasn't even around when I was in school," he answers. In a move of buck-passing that strikes me as a case of having one's pizza and eating it, too, Weinstein suggests I direct any complaints about the program to the principal of my niece's school. After all, Pizza Hut isn't forcing pizza down anyone's throat.

As luck would have it, the principal of my niece's school turns out to be none other than Mr. Hanlon, my old eighth grade English teacher from another school. And after reminiscing about the good old days of pre-Personal-Pan-Pizza scholastica (I am disheartened to hear that Bill Hanlon has long since retired his famous paddle), we finally get down to the purpose of my call.

"When you were in school, the motivation was to be able to bring home good grades," says Hanlon, principal of Roadrunner School in west Phoenix. "A lot of kids today lack that kind of motivation. Kids have changed, society has changed. There are a lot more drains on a child's time. Today schools have to compete for the children's interest so we try to use as many positive reinforcers as we can."

Hanlon concedes that while using burgers and pizzas as learning incentives may smack of commercialism, they're a worthwhile "trade-off." Referring to Pizza Hut's reading program, he says, "I don't have the figures in front of me, but we've found that with the older kids, especially, this program has really stimulated independent reading. We like to have more corporations involved in helping our school systems."

The principal says he's particularly excited about Channel One, a corporate tie-in currently in use at several junior high schools in Hanlon's Washington District: In return for free video equipment from Whittle Communications, schools agree to show students a daily newscast containing commercials geared to schoolchildren.

"Sure it's been controversial," says Hanlon, "but with our limited finances, there is no way at this point in time that we would have been able to put in that equipment. As for the commercials? Well, they're not that different from what they're seeing at home every Saturday morning."

Exactly. Class dismissed.

What have I got against positive pizza reinforcement, anyway?

"We've found that with the older kids, especially, this program has really simulated independent reading.

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Dewey Webb