The Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia held a fundraiser last year called the Boosterthon Fun Run, which raised around $30,000 for the school district’s PTA.
The “fun run” itself took place during a pep rally, and asked kids to complete fitness challenges that were sponsored in part by donors (many of whom were parents and/or community members).
Given that many public schools in America suffer from underfunding, with at least 34 states providing less funding per student for the 2013-2014 school year than they did before the Great Recession hit, this fundraiser seemed like a slam-dunk for a struggling school. An easy $30,000, raised by a committed community? That’s a fundraiser worth replicating.
But that wasn’t the case. The company that helped sponsor the event, Boosterthon, took 48% of the total money raised, on top of a $2,000 fee they made from the PTA. What’s more: Boosterthon doesn’t release their fees publicly—so unless the PTA decides to disclose how much Boosterthon makes, the figure is never told to parents, students, or the community at large.
That $30,000 raised for the school? It’s now down to just about $13,600 from administrative costs alone.
We send our kids to school to become wholesome citizens. We send them to become critical thinkers, informed decision-makers, and to prepare them for future success. Public schools are a public service. And so the trend of commercialism in public schools is a problem.
Public schools across most states in the United States have taken to implementing corporate sponsored fundraisers such as those put on by companies like Booster Enterprises, FundRunners, and Apex Fun Run, in their schools. These companies send teams to public schools to promote “character education,” fitness, and community engagement.
Of course, something needs to be done about the lack of funding in public schools. Many children and teachers suffer from excessively large class sizes, a lack of textbooks, computers and other learning tools, poorly maintained building, slashing of teaching positions, programs and courses. But is this really the way to go, to get more money—dealing with a corporate fundraiser that will gobble up huge portions of funds raised?
How do these fundraisers harm kids? And how can we really help the school budget crisis?
1. For-Profit Corporate Fundraisers Aren’t Being Regulated—And They Should Be
This small school system in Virginia is not alone in its need for more funds.
Many public schools in our country are in dire need of immediate changes, particularly those in the cities of Philadelphia and Chicago, which have a notable number of children living in extreme poverty. Every single state in the country faces a budget deficit.
But these corporations that claim to help are making personal profit off the budget crisis—taking at least 13% more than charity watchdog group CharityWatch says is acceptable for administrative costs for fundraisers.
In fact, researchers that have analyzed cases of corporate engagement in North America have concluded that often the missions of schools and the goals of corporations are inherently at odds: “When corporation enter schools, there is going to be pressure to create student experiences and shape attitudes in ways that support, or at least do not undermine, the corporate bottom line.”
One thing to do would be to get rid of corporate fundraisers altogether and organize to effect legislative changes to increase funding for public schools. After all, this is the type of structural change that is needed to attain true justice and equity in the long-term.
But legislative changes take time. The need for more money and resources is immediate.
Perhaps there is a way to hold corporate sponsor fundraisers more accountable: instituting a national third-party agency to monitor these types of programs. This regulatory body could be organized by one of the current leading philanthropists in public education, such as Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, or the Hilton Foundation.
2. Character Education is Rooted in Community, Not Corporate Agenda
Students need to retain a sense of community for the long run.
These programs claim to assist children in “character development and education”—but can a short-term fitness program really do those things?
Parents have complained about corporate fundraisers’ methods (which include prizes for the most donations brought in). A mother from Fort Worth, Texas had this to say about her experience with Boosterthon: “I wish I had video taped the Pep Rally. It would have seemed very familiar to parents who have been in sales organizations. I want to stress that there was very little talk of character…. This company is using our children in a deceptive marketing scam.”
It’s not as though schools are lacking in character education training, or that teachers are unable to provide this knowledge in their classrooms. Character education is incorporated into curriculums and realized incrementally. It can’t necessarily be taught to a whole school within the parameters of a single-day or two-week physical activity program, and short-term fundraising. And a $15,000+ price tag for a day of “character education” seems like a weak sell at best.
3. Convenience Comes at a Huge Cost
Another selling point for many corporate sponsored fundraisers is that they claim to be “hassle-free” for schools and parents.
But what is meant by “hassle-free”? Is this worth the time and effort, when so little of this money goes to the students themselves? Over 95% of Americans give back to their communities financially, and many of those (at least 16%) donate to educational charities. But is a corporate-run charitable fundraiser beneficial for the community? After all, the corporations will leave when their agenda is satisfied.
According to the National Philanthropic Trust, those 95% of Americans who donate only give about 2% of their total money earned to charity each year, on average. Once that 2% is spent (no matter where it goes), it’s harder to get people to donate more. Adding in a middleman—especially when the middleman comes at such a high cost—offers little long-term reward for communities.
According to Bruce Baker, professor at the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, the need for school finance reform is undeniable and essential. Most states have reduced the percent of their budget spent on education. State aid per pupil has also plummeted over the past decade across many states. Teacher wages across the country have also declined, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
We need funding for schools. But do we also need to line the pockets of corporations in order to do so?
Relying so heavily on the private sector only satisfies short term needs and shortchanges our kids from a wholesome education. It’s foolish to think that a corporate fundraiser is the best use of charity donations—and when a corporation takes an enormous cut of the profits for running an expensive charity event, there’s a huge portion of money being sent to the school and wasted.
Thousands of schools have signed up to participate in programs like these. There’s got to be a better way—and until corporate charities are better regulated, we have to think carefully about our participation in charity events such as these.
Neerali Patel is a graduate student of sociology at the George Washington University. She became committed to studying socioeconomic inequality and stratification after a volunteer teaching experience in the slum communities of Ahmedabad, India. You can find her thoughts on inequality, interviews with thought leaders, and some of her poetry on her website.