Fund-Raising Hell

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If we nonregressively funded schools, that would make a significant difference in the education of our children. Having each child sell 10 tins of chocolate will not.

My children's return to school this fall has been almost completely normal. My older three have nightly spelling duties to perform, math problems at various levels to compute, and at least 15 minutes of assigned nightly reading. My youngest started preschool this year, and showers me with finger paintings and new ideas. Only one thing has changed, and that is my attitude toward fund-raisers.

Two days after my 5th grader first met her new teacher and classmates, she brought home a large, glossy, four-color packet of treasures to sell. The accompanying note implores parents not to send children door to door for sales, but to show materials to family, friends, and, of course, co-workers at the parent's place of employment. Also inside the packet was the glossy advertisement for what the students would win if they sold so many "units" of listed products. "It's an exciting time of year, meeting new people, coming to a new school, and we thought we'd start this fund-raiser early, so you can share all your news with your family as they look through the packet of goodies!" the pta letter announces. I can hear it now. "Hi Grandpa, get your wallet out." Within the week, my other two grade schoolers had brought home similarly glossy folders.

I would like to hearken back to the days when extended-family members were people with whom to have pleasant visits, and not those who were expected to help pay for the new copy machine at the local school; colleagues were people with whom we had pedagogical discussions rather than comparisons of wrapping-paper ads. Since there has been no such time within the span of my memory, I won't bother. Part of my feelings about this stems from being a parent, part of it from being a teacher, and part from being a minimalist. These three categories have some overlap, so I will begin with the most obvious.

Parents want to be involved with their children. There is, as far as I can tell, no other reason why people have children. Even in abusive and neglectful households, many parents want good things for their children; they simply do not have the skills or capacity to provide them. Parents want the best education for their children. They believe, by and large, that more money for schools would provide that better education. In a way, they are correct. In another, they are not. If we completely, nonregressively funded schools in this country, that would make a significant difference in the education of our children. Having each child sell 10 tins of chocolate caramels will not make that difference. When parents are recruited to sell "gifties" to raise money for peripheral items, it gives the illusion of being involved with the school. But the only involvement this requires is "send money," which is not a significant kind of involvement to have in the education of one's child. In my opinion, this actually does more harm than good in the parental- involvement category. Many parents can rationalize that they are involved if they sell the mandatory 10 units of product for the school fund drive, and never set foot in a board of education meeting or classroom function. They may not realize that there is more to involvement than this, since most parents grew up in a culture where this type of parental involvement was the norm. As more parents are required to work more hours per week, the path of least resistance to any given problem is the "send money" approach that has become so popular in our culture. We should not allow this attitude to continue in our schools.

This type of involvement also feeds into the idea that the more money we spend on our children the more we love them. If I really loved my children, say the marketing experts in the mass media, I would subscribe to cable television and purchase a video game machine. Parents love their children and want to give them everything. They even give them things they probably believe they should not have. Most parents would prefer to spend in conversation, reading, and playing the hours that their children spend watching parades of anorexic teenagers acting sullen and dysfunctional or blasting pixel aliens. But because employers frequently require more than a 40- hour workweek and fail to provide adequate full-time employment for many workers, parents are stretched to their limits just trying to provide a stable environment for their children.

I choose not to clutter my living space with knick-knacks, pottery adorned with cute sayings, seasonal containers of junk food, or wrapping paper. I realize this puts me in the minority, but I believe that my children should know that the earth has very limited resources, and that we are quickly running through them. We do not need wrapping paper that is not recycled or recyclable. We do not need little knick-knacks to be broken and thrown in the trash. We definitely do not need seasonal trays of junk food to increase our family insomnia.

And my children do not need to distract themselves from being children to take on the responsibility of funding their education. That is my job as their mother. To that end, I happily write letters to my elected officials, donate time to help in the classroom as needed, pay taxes, and do myriad other things that contribute to our local schools. What I will not do is trade on the cuteness of my children by asking my family and friends to buy things that they don't need so that my children have a snappier playground at school. So that those friends and family members can, in turn, ask me to buy things I don't need from their children so that they can get a new copy machine. And on and on. Wouldn't it be easier to take up a collection on Meet- the-Teacher Night? Or better yet, have the district pay for these needs?

Schools say they want parents who are involved. I believe they mean that. All too often, though, teachers and administrators become overwhelmed with tasks and forget to encourage significant parental involvement, choosing instead to let the hosting of parties, helping with homework, and conducting of candy sales pass for involvement. Too many cooks may spoil the soup, but I don't think it's possible to have too many people caring about children. Perhaps it is more work to include noneducators in the process of schooling, but it's worth it. When parents are in the building, they are seeing the job that it takes to educate children. Isn't it possible that this type of involvement will more profoundly influence their cooperation with the school, their involvement in local and state policymaking on behalf of schools, and their desire to see their children's schools adequately funded than buying a ceramic snowman? I believe it will. When parents become truly invested in the process of educating their children, we are more likely to have our schools funded completely. Then, and perhaps only then, can we stop the madness of fund raising.

I teach future teachers. If I am to continue to tell them that their job is an important one, I cannot then turn around and trivialize the learning process by trading on the enthusiasm of students. I cannot.

No child wants to be the only one in the class not to get a prize, no matter how cheesy. Many parents spend their own hard-earned money to buy enough products that their children can win one of these prizes. The school still gets only a percentage of that money, instead of the 100 percent it would get if the money were given as a donation. But when I give a donation to our schools, rather than buying the products, my children do not get a company-sponsored prize.

Our children would win a better prize if educators and parents bought out of the whole system. It is a moral imperative that fund raising as we currently know it stop. More important than a new copy machine, a new playground, a dry-erase board are the futures of our children. They can have a future only if we stop polluting ourselves out of a planet, stop expecting children to pay for their own education, and stop asking their parents just to send in a check.

Jennifer Gerdes Borek is an assistant professor of education at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, N.Y.

Vol. 19, Issue 11, Page 42

Published in Print: November 10, 1999, as Fund-Raising Hell
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