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17 November 2009

Sometimes public school is depressing [More:]My kids attend public school. Every couple of months the students gather in the auditorium to listen to a sales pitch. The fundraiser people are there to amp the kids up to raise money for the school. They play pop music and excitedly pitch their product and regale the kids.

My kids (especially the youngest) come home from these sessions and desperately tell me that they must fill out a particular card (that must be returned tomorrow or they won't receive XYZ!) or sell so many items. I bought four containers of cookie dough so my kids could attend a traveling Astro Dunk performance. What about the kids that didn't sell, or didn't have the money? They must remain in the classroom while their peers watch a cool basketball show. It sucks and I dislike it immensely.

Currently we are gathering money (my money since we do not solicit neighbors or friends) for the American Heart Association. "Raise fifty dollars and you'll get a T-shirt!" I write two checks for twenty-five bucks so my kids can jump rope with the other kids. I don't mind giving to this particular charity, since I fully support their efforts and work with them every year in other events at my workplace.

Yesterday my six-year-old's teacher told me that he was chattering all day in class. She said that we was talking all day and disrupting the class. She said, "He knows that if he is quiet and follows directions he will get a Skittle." I chuckled to myself. They bribe them with candy. He usually follows classroom rules and does not disrupt class but was having an unusual day. He had a very full and fun weekend and probably had a difficult time controlling himself yesterday.

We talked to him and reinforced our expectations and the teacher's. Hopefully he will have a better time of being corrected and remember to keep quiet. It feels so unnatural for a six-year-old child to remain quiet for long stretches of time. It is our choice to send him so we must toe the line.
I SO agree with you on the "fundraising" thing. The only time that I don't end up just writing cheques is when the fundraiser is chocolate-bar-based. Then...I can bring them into the office and usually have happy takers. But it's SO true that they are exploiting the desire of our children to NOT be excluded from fun. One could almost argue that these fundraisers are, in fact, a form of social bullying. The rich irony of that is that they are often being told how wrong bullying is.
posted by richat 17 November | 10:09
And the thing about it is, it doesn't really matter how hard the kids work, because in the end, it's the kids whose parents/grandparents/babysitters will take the order forms into their big offices who will win. The son of a friend of mine just won a PSP for selling the most in the 2nd grade (and I helped, with my $7 bag of candy).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero 17 November | 10:17
I hate this stuff with a passion. I don't know how parents deal with it.

I also refuse to buy school fund-raising stuff from coworkers, because it's just relentless when you work in a large company.
posted by BoringPostcards 17 November | 10:25
I remember that fundraising nonsense vividly. I agree strongly with you - that kind of thing does not belong in public school. Can you get involved in setting policy through your school's PTO? It really is inappropriate.

They bribe them with candy.

Another thing I deplore, speaking as a former teacher. Teachers who don't have any ideas do this kind of thing. It's one thing to integrate cooking and food into your instruction, or to plan an occasional party...but to make food a reward for good behavior? Sugary junk food at that? God, what we're doing to kids. Ugh. I student-taught in one school that had a no-food-rewards policy, and it was fine. It was also the kind of school that had a once-a-month birthday party for whoever had a birthday,which was so much better than having kids compete to establish status by having the best parent-made (or bought) cupcakes.

It's not just public schools, though - it's private schools, too, depending upon their mission. But it's the "public" in public school that makes me so angry that this stuff flies. For whose "public" benefit is all this? The kid's? Really?
posted by Miko 17 November | 10:28
That's a great suggestion, Miko...trying to get involved with the school council.
posted by richat 17 November | 10:43
I agree, Richat. It is bullying and manipulative.

TPS, exactly! Our top sellers get similar prizes such as limo rides and Wii consoles. Limo rides for children? This is appealing, how?

I never bring in these order forms, or ask anybody I know, including family, to buy anything. I refuse to do it. Not only do I dislike obligating people and "begging" for money, I disagree with the entire practice.

Richat, chocolate bars would be relatively painless. I remember I sold chocolate bars my senior year. I ate most of them and the rest melted in my car. I was responsible for the entire tab. They prey on the irresponsible. ;-)

Miko, I have been upset with the fundraising since day one but have done nothing about it. I join the PTSA each year but am not overly involved with the PTSA. I volunteer in the classrooms but do not go to PTA meetings because the meetings primarily consist of organizing the next fundraiser. This is not a valid excuse, and I should protest, but I haven't yet. I think I feel like it's a lost cause.

They pass out Fruit Loops, Skittles, and Apple Jacks like they are training circus animals. I want to ask the teacher not to give my kid candy and sugary cereal, or any reward, food or not, for good behavior. I'm reluctant because I don't want to offend the teacher and accuse her of using a ineffective system. I need more guts, that's what I need.
posted by LoriFLA 17 November | 10:45
I bought four containers of cookie dough so my kids could attend a traveling Astro Dunk performance. What about the kids that didn't sell, or didn't have the money? They must remain in the classroom while their peers watch a cool basketball show. It sucks and I dislike it immensely.

But . . . but . . . they're learning a valuable life lesson: if you don't have money, people will shit on you!

Best to start learning that sort of thing early, I think.

posted by jason's_planet 17 November | 10:48
These "public" school commercializations infuriate me. I sent my kids to the most alternative schools I could find but never fully escaped that culture. I still wonder about the relationship that Scholastic has with the public schools and that is at least books.
posted by Obscure Reference 17 November | 10:56
I wonder if a large group of parents complained, if it would make a difference.

Usually, the school makes a bit of money out of these kinds of things, but a third party makes just as much.

(Although I'll give a pass to Scholastic.)
posted by danf 17 November | 11:05
I always hated that sort of crap. (My parents flat out refused to buy most of that junk, unless it was something they wanted already, which was usually the Christmas wreaths for my mother.)

I remember in high school when we went on trips, they just said fuck it and offered the fundraising as an option, but also had a line on the letter informing parents of the trip that if they just wanted to pay $x, that would be sufficient for their kid.

My folks just told me that it was worth my while to just send the money directly to whatever charity was involved instead of going through the school/whatever third party was involved.
posted by sperose 17 November | 11:21
We're just starting on this. My 3 year old attends the early childhood program at our elementary school. We live in a nice enough suburb and we have some of the highest property taxes in the state of Illinois so I don't exactly understand what the fundraising is for. I know the schools can always use more books, better computers and stuff like that but where does it end? I'm very suspicious of the companies that use little kids and their parents to sell overpriced candy and junk.

The school sent home one of those wrapping paper catalogs for us to hit up family and friends - it went straight into the recycling bin. My son's teacher knows that we're involved parents. We come to every event and have always volunteered our time. We buy books to donate to his classroom. And we pay our taxes. That's going to have to be enough.
posted by Kangaroo 17 November | 12:12
I want to ask the teacher not to give my kid candy and sugary cereal, or any reward, food or not, for good behavior. I'm reluctant because I don't want to offend the teacher and accuse her of using a ineffective system.

These are your children. You are their parent.

You and your husband have the final say on any matters that concern them.

If the teacher chooses to get a bug in her ass over a simple (and, from what I understand, fairly common) request from a parent, that's really her problem. Don't be afraid to pull rank.
posted by jason's_planet 17 November | 12:14
You are right, jason. The thing is, the carrots and sticks approach bugs me more than the sugar. I don't like the sugar, but the entire reward/punishment system bugs me more. Trying to convince a teacher that her system, that she has used for years, is not valuable is difficult. This approach does work in the short term, and she probably finds it beneficial or she wouldn't use it.

I'm not trying to make excuses. I'm trying to think of a diplomatic, and creative, way to exclude my child from this practice without disrupting her system that she believes in. I need to come up with a reason why I don't think Skittles are beneficial instead of telling her approach is a sham.
posted by LoriFLA 17 November | 12:31
For several years, I was the PTA president at my son's public K-5 so maybe I can offer some insight.

Regarding non-stop fundraising events: there's several entities fundraising at each school. PTA/PTSA/PTO units are separate not-for-profit entities from the school itself and hold fundraisers. School administrators might hold fundraisers and if the school has a sports booster club, that group might also be holding fundraisers. Another common fundraising unit is the parents of the outgoing class.

From a parent's view, your kid is coming home with the damn flyers every week and it all seems like the source is the same, but it's not and I highly recommend calling the school or the contact number on the flyer and asking who is holding which fundraiser because it makes a difference where your money/effort is going:

PTAs are required to spend funds to benefit all students as equally as possible (buying books for the library or paying for a music teacher would qualify, paying to send the graduating class on their senior trip would not). The spending of the funds has to be voted upon by the members of the PTA unit, that's everyone who paid dues to their school's PTA + showed up to a meeting and voted.

PTOs can spend their funds however their self-written bylaws permit. Same goes for sports/club/grade level boosters.

School's administrators fundraisers might keep all the funds raised for their general fund or be required to share a percentage with the district, depending on the district rules. Also depending on the district rules, the money raised may or may not have to be spent on things directly benefiting the students (one principal I know spent a huge chunk on planting flowers in front of the admin office). Parental input on how these funds are spent is not usually taken into consideration.

During my first year of tenure, I decided I wanted to eliminate all packaged fundraisers: candy, gift wrap, cookie dough and the like. As the companies behind those programs rarely share more than 30% of the amount raised, I believed we could make the same amount of money by holding fundraising events that promoted healthy bodies and minds such as walk/spell-a-thons, raffles, art/music/drama performances as well as asking for straight out donations from the community.

However, to my great surprise and dismay, the majority of parents did not want to give up the product fundraisers. I received many complaints when I proposed we not run the big annual pre-Christmas See's Candy sale with a huge number of parents saying words to the effect of "but that's where I buy all my Christmas presents." When I said they could still go to the See's Candy store in the mall and buy the chocolates for the exact same price, they were upset that the school would be missing out on the small percentage See's shares with the school. OK, so they have a point there and when the decision was put to a vote, I lost and we ran the everloving candy sale.

Another issue is many of the events I wanted to run take a lot of volunteers to organize and implement: parents willing to chair each event, coodinate student participation with teachers, find additional volunteers, handle event marketing, sales and money handling. Among my parent community, I had few who were willing and capable to step into those roles, even if the roles were distributed (and there, I ran into the issue of "just not enough warm bodies.") Sad to say, one of the reasons packaged fundraisers are so popular is they are so easy to run: I managed the above-mentioned candy sale, $35K in sales, by myself using an Excel spreadsheet and about 3 hours total of my time. The candy company took care of the marketing & sales materials and product delivery. The following year, we sold nearly $50K and it took me an extra quarter hour to coordinate.

I feel like I did accomplish a few things during my tenure: I made sure that we offered parents the option of just writing a donation in exchange for an acknowledgement letter with our unit's tax ID number so they could take it as a deduction. I also stretched the limits of my crappy math abilities to figure out formulas that would ensure the children of those parents were included in whatever prize matrix was being offered by the fundraiser. I killed the snack wagon, which sold Cheetos and shit after school. Thing is, my son is at a different school now so who knows if any of those changes stuck. And that's why you must go to your kid's PTA meeting.
posted by jamaro 17 November | 13:17
They bribe them with candy.

Not possible in Texas anymore; they no longer allow candy and sweets in school.

Can you get involved in setting policy through your school's PTO? It really is inappropriate.

What jamaro most ably explained. These organizations are trying to fulfill a valid mission in the school, and in times of budget cuts this is even more important. In trying to maximize they good they can do, they sometimes have to sell Sees candy.
posted by Doohickie 17 November | 13:31
The thing is, the carrots and sticks approach bugs me more than the sugar. I don't like the sugar, but the entire reward/punishment system bugs me more.

OK. I was not getting that particular point. My apologies.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that if the teacher has built this system around junk food, you might have some short-term success by just telling her that you don't want your kids eating that stuff. For now, at least, while you're cooking up a diplomatic critique of her reward/punishment system.

Just a suggestion.
posted by jason's_planet 17 November | 14:04
Hm, in re-reading what I wrote above, I unintentionally made it sound too rah rah for PTA. To be clear, I didn't like some aspects of being in a bonafide PTA unit (for starters, it pained me that we had to pay a % of membership dues to state and national PTA. I did not like taking money out of the school's community, especially one as poor as mine, and sending it elsewhere).

PTA units do all have to conform to a standard set of rules with publicly available bylaws so that makes it simpler for smaller groups of parents to learn enough about it to challenge + there is the ability to appeal to the local council, state and national organizations (hey, that's what those dues are paying for) and effect change whereas each PTO stands individually and largely answers to themselves.

One thing I've noticed with most of the PTA units I've encountered: they don't conform closely enough to National PTA rules and guidelines, one of which is the 3:1 ratio on fundraising. NatPTA says units should sponsor 3 enrichment events for every 1 fundraiser. The PTAs I've met that fail to meet that goal do so out of ignorance: most of these sort of volunteer groups run on institutional memory, not by the board members taking the time to read the giant annually-revised National PTA book from cover to cover. Anyway, all of that book is online. Use it as a weapon to change your school's PTA :)
posted by jamaro 17 November | 14:04
Thanks for the great information and your experience, jamaro.

I need to attend more meetings and understand why they do the things they do instead of complaining from the sidelines.

Doohickie, I'm with you 100 percent. I'm not opposed to raising funds. My kids go to a "working class" school -- we can use all the funds we can get. It's just the way they go about it that bothers me.
posted by LoriFLA 17 November | 15:19
I just read a column about this! (Link to Christian Science Monitor) "Schools shun Obama yet let sales firms prey on students."
posted by halonine 17 November | 15:31
LoriFLA if you get into it, let me know if you need any help deciphering their rules because I did actually read that stupid thick PTA book from cover to cover every year, it was the discrepancies I saw between what should be vs what was being done that drove me to take my son's schools unit over (muahahaa).

Also, as a due-paying PTSA member in good standing, you have access to member-only stuffs at National PTA website. Tons of parent advocacy info there and the above mentioned rulebook. If your PTSA didn't give you login info, they should and owe it to you as a required part of your dues.
posted by jamaro 17 November | 15:32
hey bribe them with candy.

This is just plain wrong. However, what are teachers to do when the state takes away any of their rights to discipline their students? At the school my kids go to, they get 'time-outs' for bad behaviour and these accrue over the semester. At the end of the semester, the kids who are under a certain threshold get to go on a trip to a theme park. The thing I hate about this is that the 'punishment' is completely removed from the bad behaviour - expecting young kids to understand that they are being punished for something they did six months ago must be a tough gig.

For whose "public" benefit is all this? The kid's? Really?
Actually, yes. I can't speak for the situation in the US but, in Australia (my state anyway), the school doesn't get funding for purchase, replacement or repair of things like musical instruments or sporting equipment - the Parents and Citizens Association is responsible for raising funds for these things, as well as major capital works such as school halls. I have twice now contributed significantly to these programs and twice the facility has been built after my child left the school (the very next year, both times!), so I no longer contribute - I get the whole community benefit thing, but there is an innate unfairness that, because these projects take so long to fund, those who put the effort in never get the benefit unless they have lots of kids at the school.

Private schools don't have the same problem, because they have an income stream that they can put towards these purposes. They still do fund-raising, though, because there is always more stuff needed. Here, private schools get government funding that covers teacher's salaries and some other stuff, but they are not allowed to use that funding to cover capital expenditure. They usually have a system where the parents get invoiced for the 'voluntary' contribution and can opt-out by contacting the school and asking for the fee to be waived.
posted by dg 19 November | 15:14
However, what are teachers to do when the state takes away any of their rights to discipline their students?

Oh, no, they can still discipline. I was a teacher, and there is a whole body of classroom management training and information out there that is based much more in day-to-day structure and control and much less on a punishment/reward system. It's a pity that so many teachers are simply not trained or coached in this kind of management, and that so few schools lay it out as a guideline for practice.

Actually, yes. I can't speak for the situation in the US but, in Australia (my state anyway), the school doesn't get funding for purchase, replacement or repair of things...

Ah, I can understand raising funds to cover those gaps. But is having the children stump for cheap products the most effective way of raising funds for these projects? PTOs in the states sometimes bring in the sales company for convenience, but it's also possible for PTOs to develop many other kinds of fundraisers in which participation is more voluntary and in which adults, not kids, do the work.

On the whole I think the best solution is to support adequate school funding. In the US that proves to be incredibly politically hard because our schools are funded by a combination of local municipal taxes and a smaller amount of state support. This creates obvious inequalities in funding school to school,and endangers funding because people who feel no stake in the school system often view that line in the town budget as a great place to make cuts and vote it down.
posted by Miko 19 November | 15:39
Oops, I didn't read jamaro's excellent comment. Food for thought - I know how hard it is to get people to volunteer - but what a poor compromise the whole thing ends up to be for everyone involved.
posted by Miko 19 November | 15:42
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