U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently told the nation that education “is the civil rights issue of our generation, and it is the one sure path to a more equal, fair, and just society.” This struck a chord with me and raised a question: How does Duncan, a former professional basketball player and CEO of the Chicago public schools, a man who is known for his dedication to fair play on the court and in the classroom, feel about a routine practice in today’s schools that is both unfair and unjust? I’m talking about the insidious, hidden-in-plain-sight practice of fundraising during the school day, with the students recruited as salespeople.
My wake-up call on the problem came late, after several years of volunteering at the annual Scholastic Book Fair at my son’s school. Each year, I’d help the kindergartners who were trotted in from their classes fill out their “wish lists,” forms giving the titles and prices of books they wanted bought for them. Take the lists home tonight, I’d dutifully remind the children.
What better way to help the school generate a little extra cash than promoting reading? Plus, I enjoyed it—until one day I didn’t. And then I realized that what I was doing was coercive, exploitative, and economically discriminating, to the children and their families. Not to mention the fact that it was blatantly commercial.
It’s not just these sponsored book fairs that snare the well-meaning parent, either. Consider the annual magazine drives with their kickoff assemblies. These money-making activities, whether supplied by industry leader QSP Inc. or one of the abundant smaller purveyors contracted by schools around the country, typically involve herding the entire student body into the auditorium to be whipped into a selling frenzy. “Sell the most subscriptions and you can win the iPod, Xbox, or a limo ride to the neighborhood pizza parlor!” Many schools around the country go further, holding pet-show parties or cash-grab carnivals for the winners—during school hours.
Good-bye, bake sales and car washes—hands-on, largely student-run after-school ventures to pay for a special field trip or new team uniforms. Hello, backpacks stuffed with promotional fliers hawking cookie dough, wrapping paper, or (my favorite) gourmet-scented pencils—Smencils!—and incentivized sales rallies in lieu of social studies.
The rationale for these activities? They supposedly teach kids teamwork, business, and people skills. But the only lesson kids are guaranteed to learn is how to become cogs in the $4 billion-a-year commercial school-fundraising industry—and make next year’s crop of ever-more-irresistible gewgaws possible.
These days, teachers complain of having barely enough time to cover the material required by state standards and federal testing mandates. But more than just precious instructional hours are lost to fundraising as it turns classrooms into polarizing arenas in which kids learn whose parents can buy them the most books or get enough relatives or co-workers to pony up in chocolate bars to win them the Wii.
Economic inequalities between school districts are exacerbated, too. In a sad commentary on the gap between parents’ desires to help their children’s schools and their abilities to do so, while both well-heeled and less affluent communities hold book fairs, the latter often yield less profit than bounced checks.
Whittled-down school budgets have intensified real and perceived needs for spending on everything from jeopardized arts programs to smartboards. And in our financial panic, perhaps, we’ve persuaded ourselves that the only way we can enrich our schools is by fundraising that is not just perpetual, but often unfettered by firewalls that could shield kids from the competitive pressures and other grown-up concerns they foist on them.
Yet commercial firewalls in schools are precisely what parents fight to maintain by banning advertising and sugary snacks. And that’s what the National PTA claims to honor. PTA online and print literature repeatedly warn, “Children should never be exploited or used as fundraisers” and “Children should not take part in fundraising activities.” A few paragraphs or pages later, however, these materials offer helpful links to fundraising outfits utilizing students in just these ways.
Interestingly, a majority of principals surveyed in 2007 by the National Association of Elementary School Principals said they’d rather not have fundraisers. Yet they valued the programs and technologies these activities were able to bring their schools, add-ons that promised to raise test scores and the schools’ reputations. Other, anonymous reports suggest that principals are likely to allow fundraisers because doing otherwise means saying no to today’s prevalent school booster types who wield their own agendas and have a can-do way of going over the principal’s head for what they want.
Plenty of teachers detest fundraisers, too. At the same time, though, they rely on them to pick up the costs of supplies and materials their schools can’t afford and that they often end up paying for out of their own pockets. Without the support of their unions, generally silent on this issue so far, teachers are understandably reluctant to speak out.
Parochial interests seem unwilling or unable to confront the problem. Which is why Secretary Duncan’s addressing education in civil rights terms make me somewhat hopeful. He might just be the player to take a shot at the issue, and at least make the case publicly that ensuring our children’s right to an education of quality and equality means protecting them from in-school fundraising. Maybe he can even make it a slam-dunk.
A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 2009 edition of Education Week as Put an End to In-School Fundraising