Speaking out: Creative solutions for school fundraisers

Speaking out: Creative solutions for school fundraisers

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If you want to get people talking, ask them about their kids. If you want to get them really talking, ask their opinion of their kids’ school fundraisers.

As a new kindergarten parent, I’ve been surprised by the number of fundraisers we’ve already been asked to participate in. Asking a classroom of 5-year-olds (well, their parents) to raise money for books is a grim early lesson in how the world works. I attended public school in Texas and remember selling candy bars for my high school band trip, but I hadn’t given much thought to what we now ask parents, teachers and kids to raise to support public education.

To learn more, I started informally interviewing other area parents and teachers. First, I want to wholeheartedly thank the parents and teachers who put in so much work to raise money for our schools, usually through a Parent Teacher Organization. Because, in my very unscientific survey, no one likes fundraisers, many parents and staff feel overwhelmed by them, and they can exacerbate socioeconomic disparity between schools.

But until we publicly fund every school adequately, fundraisers will remain necessary. Funds raised generally buy items on educators’ “wish lists,” often as basic as classroom supplies, science kits, library books and playground equipment.

There is no magic formula for fundraising. Selling sweets is difficult when many families are trying to make healthier choices and avoid food allergies. Print magazine subscriptions are no longer a hot item. Clipping box tops is tedious. I heard stories of tears when kids didn’t sell enough items for a top prize, and peer pressure to perform in class competitions, even though not all families have the resources to participate.

I spoke with one Bismarck mom whose daughter’s classmate lived with a single parent raising three kids while working multiple jobs. She invited the classmate to tag along while fundraising door to door. This mom felt it was more important for the friend to feel included than to boost her own daughter’s sales.

A kindergarten teacher told me she initially spent many extra hours helping with fundraisers but then realized it was more efficient to spend her own money on her class. A 2018 Department of Education survey found that 94% of public school teachers spend personal money on classroom supplies, averaging almost $500 annually per teacher.

We may not be able to totally break free from coupon books and butter braids, but creative solutions are emerging. My nieces’ school shifted to an all-cash model: just donate cash online. All of the money (minus a service fee) goes directly to the school. Then instead of prizes -- which tend to go to the wealthiest kids -- the students enter a raffle to win lunch with the principal. This diminishes money spent on cheap toys for prizes, and also gives more kids a shot at winning without shaming the kids who couldn’t or didn’t participate.

I’m sure there are other creative tactics I haven’t heard about, but most creative of all would be to use public funds to provide schools with what they need. If only our state had a large pool of money that we could invest in public education. Like a Legacy Fund, perhaps.

Free public education is a core American value. The obvious, but politically complicated, solution is to raise taxes or invest existing public funds to equitably meet schools’ needs. Let kids and teachers focus on learning, not sales. There has to be a better way -- and there is, if we as a community decide to prioritize fully funded public education for all kids.

Ann Crews Melton is a writer and editor particularly interested in religion, identity and diversity. A Texas native, she now calls Bismarck home.

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