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Has School Fundraising Gone Too Far?

The New Deal

Stanley Levenson, author of Big Time Fundraising for Today's Schools (Corwin Press), takes an opposing view by arguing that typical time-consuming, labor-intensive fundraisers don't cut it anymore. Past successes aside, car washes and carnivals can no longer carry the burden for financially strapped schools, he says. "If public schools are to compete for needed dollars," explains Levenson, "superintendents and others must aggressively apply the fundraising strategies used so effectively in universities and private schools."

That means creating district-wide development offices, conducting annual and capital campaigns and writing applications for corporate, foundation and government grants. According to Levenson, development offices can become profit centers in two years or less.

Of course, most districts will have a hard time implementing this model. For starters, it requires a certain amount of overhead. "In low-income communities, the question could be, do you form a development office or put a teacher in a classroom," says Saylors.

In December 2010, the Los Angeles school board unanimously approved a plan to allow the district to seek corporate sponsorships. This could mean, for instance, arranged school visits to pass out samples of approved food products, or placing donors' logos in lunchrooms. But the board also drew a line—they will not do business with companies that sell alcohol, tobacco, firearms or high-calorie or high-fat foods.

While corporations can bring money into schools, they then potentially wield influence, which brings up a long-standing concern about school commercialization. "When companies get involved, it's not purely altruistic," says Faith Boninger, Ph.D., a research associate at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "They're trying to make the children customers for life." In other words, kids are bombarded by marketers in their regular lives. Schools should be a neutral zone.

In Levenson's eyes, that concern is overstated. As he sees it, companies already influence kids who go online, watch TV and look at magazines or billboards. By not involving corporations in the total fundraising effort, a school or district is missing out on a good possible source of external cash.

Although establishing development offices, applying for grants and courting corporate sponsors requires resources and time—both scarce at most public schools—it appears to be the wave of the future. Even those who are resistant acknowledge there may be no choice.

Los Angeles school board member Steve Zimmer says corporate sponsors are a necessary evil and we must proceed with extreme caution. For example, in theory, a textbook company could make a sizable donation, then have a book chosen for class use even if it's not the best option. "This is a dangerous scenario, and that's why I'm so uncomfortable," says Zimmer. "But this is our new reality. Public funding is no longer funding public education."