Desperate Parents Compete for Corporate Dollars for Schools

I have to congratulate Don Benito Elementary on being one of the winners of the Avery Dennison Give Back to Schools contest for $10,000 worth of school supplies. I have to because well, I have friends there and I am happy one of our local schools made it to the top of this national contest.

At the same time, I am not happy at all. No, it’s not just sour grapes…at least not entirely.

I watched – and participated – on Facebook as parents around our district posted reminders to their networks to “vote for their school.” That’s how the contest worked. The schools that had the most online votes tallied by a certain date won. So one of us would post a reminder to OUR friends to vote for OUR school, which would then remind all of our friends to post a reminder about THEIR school to THEIR friends.

As one friend accurately noted, we created “spectacle of hundreds of educated adults running around clicking html buttons for amounts of money, that in the end only represent a tiny amount relative to operating budgets.”

It is a spectacle that frustrates me on so many levels. And not just the level of “Humph, my school lost. “

I am frustrated that our public schools are so woefully underfunded that parents are reduced to desperate measures and making spectacles of ourselves, so busy competing against each other to benefit OUR school that it’s hard to make time and energy for how to benefit ALL schools

I am frustrated that our desperation as parents is taken advantage of by corporations in their own marketing interests. Even when, as I believe it is in this case for Avery, it is well-intentioned.

And I am frustrated that contests like this inevitably reward schools that have very involved parents, have a large number of parents online, and by extension usually already have the ability to raise funds themselves. In other words, these spectacles become one more way in which we increase the gap between schools that have and those that have not.

I did a bit of research on the top three winners of the Avery contest. To be fair, the top two winners serve populations that are 68% free and reduced lunch students (a measure of socio-economic disadvantage) and 56% respectively. Both are however already relatively high achieving schools (based purely on test scores.) The third place finisher on the other hand has just 10% of its students receiving free and reduced lunch and its API score is a stunning 930. How much of Avery’s $250,000 really went to the neediest schools? The ones whose kids really can’t afford school supplies? And how much went to the schools that had the most parents on Facebook?

Here in Pasadena Unified, where Avery is located, our district as a whole is 66% free and reduced lunch students and 21% English Learners. Our winner, Don Benito, is just 30% free and reduced lunch and 14% English Learners while my own elementary is 73% free and reduced lunch and 32% English learners. So even locally – as happy as I’m trying to be for my friends – it feels like the contest was rigged from the beginning. The school with arguably less need but arguably more parents online and involved, won the resources. Competition is sort of a sacred value in our country, but competition rarely distributes resources equitably.

There’s got to be a better way.

What do you think of these types of contests? How do we make sure all schools in a district have adequate resources? If you want to email suggestions to Avery, send to givebacktoschools@averydennison.com.

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1 Comment

Filed under Economy, Education

One response to “Desperate Parents Compete for Corporate Dollars for Schools

  1. Kim Tso

    What I find most difficult about these type of contests are two things. One is that there is no stated vision for what the donor is trying to achieve with the money. Without a purpose, we can’t direct resources where they can be most effective. (of course, I’m sure the companies that do these competitions have some goal they are trying to achieve, but they are not always explicit about it and it’s usually a goal that is self-serving rather than thoughtful about the community it could impact).

    Two is that rather than going through the more challenging process of coming up with criteria for choosing who should get the money, these competitions try to let “the market” decide — the aggregated preferences of those that vote. It side steps an important process of refining our values about what is important to fund and how to choose. It is this process where we have opportunities to exercise some civic dialogue and muscle.

    In other words, the design of these competitions wastes the money, not because the schools that receive them won’t put them to good use, but because we squander the opportunity to let the grants engage a deeper conversation about what matters and how to fund what matters to communities.

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