Food City, Bashas’ and Fry’s grocery stores, Target, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Sonic, Papa John’s Pizza, Skippy’s restaurant, Cold Stone Creamery, Boston’s The Gourmet Pizza . . . and the list goes on.
All have helped East Valley school groups raise money in recent months through fundraisers that entice parents and students to spend cash at their outlets in exchange for a percentage of the proceeds going back to the school.
Educators report a mutual benefit: The school gets money, and so do the businesses. But researchers who study “schoolhouse commercialism” at Arizona State University challenge that assumption.
“The arrangements don’t benefit schools much at all in terms of the economics of them,” ASU professor Alex Molnar said. “And they arguably harm the community and the child.”
Molnar directs the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at ASU that tracks corporate relationships with schools. He said ASU research shows that media references to the fundraisers increased 21 percent nationally between June 2003 and June 2004.
School groups and parent volunteers typically control the money raised through the partnerships, he said, and many school administrators are “utterly clueless” in regard to the ethical issues involved.
“It’s very rare for someone to stop and say, ‘Is this really good for the children? How does this actually benefit the school? Might this be a distraction? Are we encouraging behavior and values that undermine what we are saying in the schools’ curriculum?,’ ” he said. “It’s under most people’s radar screens. It’s sort of an all-around feel-good situation. . . . It’s essentially an environment where it is much easier for the superintendent and principal to get along by going along rather than by appearing critical of corporations.”
School officials and parents acknowledge that money isn’t rolling in from the endeavors.
Gilbert’s Canyon Rim Elementary School PTA reported in its Nov. 9 minutes that it collected $350 when the school’s families went to Sonic on Oct. 3 and $208 when families ordered from Papa John’s Pizza on Oct. 6. The money has been used to purchase a school mascot costume, a copy machine, grants for classroom supplies and licensing fees for the school’s music department.
But school officials and parents say it’s not about the money.
They say it’s sense of community and the “little perks” they reap from the business relationships that make school life better for students and teachers. Canyon Rim PTA president Scott Murray said restaurants that have partnerships with his organization have donated muffins in the morning for parents to eat with their children and coffee and pizza for teachers’ meetings.
“It’s really hard to put a dollar amount on that, on top of what they do,” he said.
School officials point to the state Legislature for not funding schools adequately as a reason why the partnerships are necessary.
“Isn’t it a shame the Legislature has put us in a position where we have to scramble for dollars and we have to take these offers?” Apache Junction Unified School District spokeswoman Carol Shepherd said. “Maybe the businesses’ motive is, in fact, commercial purpose. It is still providing some help for schools.”
Business owners also defend the relationships.
“Private enterprise can do a great deal for the education system,” said Rick Elias, manager of Skippy’s Grill and Cantina, which hosted a family night last semester for Power Ranch Elementary School in the Higley Unified School District. “You can call it commercialism all you want. I’m looking for a win-win. Yeah, I’m looking for more business, but . . . it’s harder for them to get extracurricular money, so I believe the best way to do that is step up to the plate, and by the same token I’m going to reap the benefit of getting people to know me. I’d be lying to you to say it’s out of the generosity of my heart. On the other side of the coin, I believe that every business should be a part of their community.”
The Gilbert Unified School District is in the process of developing a policy that addresses advertising, according to school officials.
“I am not that concerned about that aspect of commercialism on the surface,” said Thad Stump, the Gilbert district’s governing board president. “It hasn’t struck me before as an issue, but it is certainly something that warrants some thought.”
Molnar, who oversaw research in 2004 for ASU’s Commercialism in Education Research Unit, said if corporations wanted to give big dollars to schools, they would be lobbying to increase corporate tax rates and earmarking corporate tax dollars for schools.
“Corporations and businesses are opportunists,” he said. “They are very pure in a way: They only have one goal, and that is to make money. Schools have a different charge and a public charge, and it involves an ethical and moral committee.”
But for Canyon Rim fifth-grader Anthony Hovorka, he said he likes seeing his friends outside school at the fundraisers.
“I thought it was pretty cool because I get to go get my favorite slushy (at Sonic) and raise money for my school,” he said.