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What’s the Benefit of Corporatizing Education?

Fund-raising programs like General Mills’ Box Tops require big parental investment with few returns. But public education is desperate, underfunded, and currently under attack.

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The first year I signed up to be my daughter’s public elementary school’s Box Tops and Labels for Education Coordinator our Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) president told me no one had been the coordinator for almost two years. I looked at the two former five-gallon ice cream buckets of baggies and envelopes collecting dust in the school’s office and thought, well, that’s a lot, but manageable. I brought it all home; I sorted, I counted. I learned more about our neighborhood school, which then cited 49 percent of our student population as economically disadvantaged and received Title I funds to support a high percentage of English language learners and students with behavioral and physical disabilities. I wanted to be of service in terms of fundraising. With a little delegation, myself and a few other volunteers spent well over 20 hours in efforts to sort, count, and toss (so, so many) more than 30,000 coupons. And what was our total dollar amount raised after all that work? $1,270 in cash from the General Mills Box Tops program and $250 in prizes from Campbell’s Labels for Education. Our school bought reams of paper and received a Visa gift card for additional small purchases. Exasperated by this dismal return on our time investment and now half-blind, I started trolling the newly-confirmed U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, on Twitter.

Since the 2008 recession, the average spending per student for public schools has remained around $12,509 and, so, increasingly almost all of our nation’s public schools rely on private fundraising. The latest available information shows that the amounts raised range from less than $5000 to more than $75,000 per school, with some PTAs raking in millions. These variations create further disparities in our national education by making it seem as though if parents can just put in a little effort, we can have better schools. But reliance on fundraising deflects the problem: the ways in which school funding formulates are set up—putting an equal burden on schools and families no matter the wealth of the community—furthers economic and oftentimes racial segregation in our communities.

And although I want to blame DeVos for the rise in privatization and corporatization of public education, the truth is, the scale has been tipping that way for a long time. General Mills has had its Box Tops program for 20 years and Campbell’s for 30, although the latter is ending its charity program this year, according to its website, because “participation has declined.” Nonetheless, more corporations are getting into the fundraising business to boost sales and/or create on early brand loyalty and more private PTO’s and, even, non-profit foundations, work to fund neighborhood schools. Some particularly smarmy corporations capitalize on the strained budgets of public schools by swooping in and promising benefits for students while, in actuality, taking as much as half of the profits.

Because DeVos is one of privatization’s biggest proponents, she is making the funding crisis worse. And her ideas do not sit well with the masses, the majority of whose kids attend public schools. Earlier this month, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Katherine Clark released a report called “DeVos Watch, Year One: Failing America’s Students,” a document that outlines many problematic areas of the U.S. Secretary of Education’s confirmation, one of which is the “weakening of public education.” DeVos is well-known for her scorn of public schools and is a big promoter, along with Trump, of the capitalistic education-as-big-business model known as “school choice,” which is doublespeak for funneling taxpayer money away from public and toward private schools. Even though a PDK 2017 poll, just like in previous years, “shows little public support for using public money to send children to private schools,” the Trump administration’s proposed education budget earmarks $1.36 billion to expand school choice.

According to Warren’s report and DeVos’ own admission on CBS’s 60 Minutes, the Education Secretary spent her first year visiting primarily private and charter schools and did not visit one school she called “underperforming.” Meanwhile, public school superintendents write grants to make ends meet and parent-teacher organizations around the country scramble to raise funds in support of their neighborhood schools.

“The only things we get funded from the district are absolute needs,” a principal of another elementary school outside of Portland says. She’s been with her district for 19 years, eight as principal, which has 70 percent of its students on free and reduced lunch. “For any of those beyond-the-basics, we have to rely on fundraising. Like a teacher who wanted a reading curriculum for some of her students who were struggling, I would have no discretionary money without fundraising,” she said.

Numbers vary state to state but according to the National Center for Education Statistics, each state provides an average of 43 percent, local governments contribute about 44 percent, and the federal government contributes about 13 percent of all elementary and secondary education funding. Distribution of allocated funds follows complicated formulas, also varying between states, but basically the math is resource-based, student-based, program-based, or a combination thereof, with the theory that per-student spending will be equal. But money doesn’t trickle equitably, where the highest-need students—such as low-income, homeless or foster-care youth—receive more money just to get to the same line as those schools that have lower need.

Most states use property taxes at the local level to fund their schools, and that means that the higher the tax bracket, the more money per student. The Illinois suburb where I grew up, for example, in one of the wealthiest districts in the nation, property taxes funded incredible public school systems, paying out upwards of $20,000 per high school student. But 13 miles away in Chicago, the public school district planned this year to spend just $5,320. This means, of course that teachers in those same districts are making far less than suburban teachers make. This kind of inequity is not unique to Illinois, and the issue is being contested again in Pennsylvania this week. But because of the 1973 Supreme Court ruling on Antonio[Texas] Independent School District v. Rodriguez, which said that “local control,” was not unconstitutional as long as districts provided “an opportunity to acquire…the basic minimal skills necessary” to function in society, the formulas often revert back to state legislatures.

In areas where parents have more resources, the funding problems do not hit where it hurts in the same ways, mostly because of parent-involved fundraising. In a recent survey by PTO Today, fundraising organizations across the nation have been gearing more earnings, a 17 percent increase in 2017, toward basic teaching aids and classroom supplies. But inevitably, fundraising is easier and more successful in communities that have actual funds.

“Our district recognizes that fundraising is a hardship,” my veteran principal says. “We limit them to two a year. And while we want the members who do the organizing to represent our school, the reality is that the fundraisers are run by moms who can.” She also told me about a mother who is outspoken about how some of the fundraisers like eat-out events or cookie dough sales are inequitable because she can’t give money for cookies when she needs to buy food for her family. The mom also explained that requests from teachers for snacks are not something she can afford. The principal is grateful that particular parent speaks up and she also thinks about all the parents who do not feel comfortable raising a grievance with the top official in their school.

A popular and simple fundraiser many schools do is a non-corporate Jog-a-Thon, where kids gather pledges for laps they do around a track (or in Oregon where it rains all the time, around the walls of a gymnasium). There are variations on that theme, like read-a-thons or dance-a-thons for older kids, and at least all kids can participate whether or not they have collected any pledges. But still, these kinds of fundraisers ask kids and, more likely, their parents, to go around to neighbors and work associates to pledge donations that aren’t a possibility for many poor and working class folks. Likewise, many PTAs do event nights that include auctions and in-kind donations, but again, include only those who can donate or can afford to buy. “We don’t do auctions,” the principal told me, recognizing how they are prohibitive. Schools with more resources create booster clubs to support various teams, or, even, non-profit foundations, that do large-scale fundraising. The more affluent the community, the greater the options, with some foundations able to keep their money inside their district with tax breaks and/or write offs, making the community even more attractive and ensuring property taxes stay even higher. And as DeVos schemes to siphon more money from public education, this increased reliance on private money to fund local schools just creates deepening inequities. DeVos’s school choice is effectively transforming the Constitutional right to quality education into a luxury only the wealthiest Americans can afford.

Which brings us back to the Box Tops for Education program, which while supported by parents like me, are arguably just marketing ploys to gain lifetime consumers and boost the corporate bottom line. According to the Box Tops for Education website, they’ve paid out $868 million over the last 20 years from the program. With now around 82,000 schools participating in their program, over that same time period, the average check would amount to $529 per school. General Mills’ advertising budget for 2017 was 623.8 million, and that number is lower than previous years. So they are paying out chump change to look good as charitable corporations while gaining young consumers who want to buy Lucky Charms or Annie’s Mac and Cheese just for the little rectangle to put in the school’s bin. These kinds of fundraising programs are also unfair when a family can’t afford to buy General Mills’ name brands, like Ziplocs or Cheerios, rather than generic baggies or Toasted O’s at the dollar store. Some kids end up not being able to participate in drives at all.

Mega-companies like Pepsi have spent over $150 million in the past decade to reach students and other corporate food fundraisers like cookie dough and chocolate sales remain strong. Fast-food restaurants sponsor “eat-out” nights, which bring consumers in to their junk-food but don’t pay out that much to schools, according to Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood research, usually less than $1,000 for the night. In 24 years of living in Oregon, I’d never been to a Burgerville, a Pacific Northwest fast-food favorite, until our local restaurant hosted a fundraiser for our elementary school. The place was packed. All these kids and parents eating fast-food while being served by teachers, aids, and the principal. Fun right? Not if you can’t afford to pay. And now my daughter is addicted to Burgerville’s milkshakes. Fundraising parents like me need to acknowledge this corporate underwriting of education costs more than it gives back.

Like all parts of this administration, the swampiness of the current U.S. Department of Education may wake up public school parents to the fact that we need to direct our energies away from fundraising and toward advocating for new equitable funding formulas for our schools. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which passed in 2015 and which DeVos already has pulled-back regulations on, requires “states to report per-pupil spending at the school and district levels.” What that means is there will be more specific transparency within state formulas, and more importantly, within districts. The reports, if paid attention to, may reveal biases based on race and class that could have legal implications and should, at the very least, be a loud rallying cry to get all public education stakeholders to think beyond the boundaries of our towns and work together with to create truly equitable public education.

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