Corporations are taking advantage of our underfunded public schools

McDonald’s is getting free labor, improving its image, and gaining new customers all at once.

CREDIT: AP Photo
CREDIT: AP Photo

McDonald’s involvement in public education is here to stay.

Specifically, during a fundraising event named “McTeacher’s Night,” teachers can work a shift at McDonald’s during which part of the fast food restaurant’s proceeds will go toward those teachers’ schools. Teachers can do anything from working the cash register to flipping burgers.

According to McDonald’s documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, teachers are encouraged to promote the event, which often means wearing T-shirts displaying the golden arches. “(Hint: Your success depends on how well YOU PROMOTE this event at your school)” the document reads. It adds that McDonald’s will provide 500 flyers to be handed out at schools.

There are a lot of problems with McTeacher Nights, teachers and advocates for reduced commercialism in school argue. The Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood conducted research last year on how much money is actually raised on these nights and found that they typically only provide $1 to $2 per student. In return, McDonald’s gets free labor from teachers, free advertising, and introduces a product to children in the hope of creating brand loyalty.

“What are we saying to educators? Are we not telling our educators to put in eight hours a day and then asking them to work a shift at McDonalds? For paltry field trip money?” said Cecily Myart-Cruz, NEA vice president of United Teachers, Los Angeles, who added that teachers shouldn’t be promoting unhealthy food. “It’s another way to privatize education. Education is already privatizing and this is just another way to do it.”

These events also help its public image. McDonald’s looks like a great corporate citizen, despite the fact that it could simply donate money to schools in amounts that would dwarf what schools receive from participating in McTeacher’s Nights.

How corporations are operating in our schools

This type of corporate activity isn’t entirely new. For instance, Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! program, which provides students with pizza when they read a certain number of books, has been going on since 1984. But it is becoming easier for corporations to take advantage of underfunded schools.

Across the country, large urban school systems — such as Detroit Public Schools, Chicago Public Schools, and Los Angeles Unified School District — are going through budget crises or are teetering on the brink of them. Rural school districts are also struggling financially and considering mergers to provide basic services to students. This underfunding of public education presents an opportunity for corporations, as schools desperate for new fundraising mechanisms may turn a blind eye to corporate involvement in schools.

“This kind of activity in schools has been around for a long time, but there has been a huge uptick since the economic downturn of 2008 where schools will do anything for money including rescinding policies preventing [commercialism in schools] from happening,” said Josh Golin, the executive director for The Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, which campaigns to end child-targeted marketing.

Levi’s, for example, has its own campaign in schools involving educational posters of cartoon kids wearing their jeans as part of a water conservation curriculum provided to schools. In numerous states, schools are considering or are already implementing advertising on the outside and inside of school buses, since a portion of the profits from advertisements go back to schools, according to a 2014 report on schoolhouse commercialism from the National Education Policy Center.

“You have a food industry instrument for promoting their message to children.”

Nonprofits are also an effective way for corporations to get involved in school curricula without having an obvious influence in the way McDonald’s does. For instance, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a not-for-profit organization focused on reducing childhood obesity, runs a free wellness curriculum called Together Counts. But the foundation’s board of directors includes executives from Nestle, PepsiCo, General Mills, Bumble Bee Foods, The Coca Cola Company, and J.M. Smucker Company — and its Board of Governors also includes executives from many of these same companies, as well as the Food Marketing Institute.

“What [Together Counts] does is promote in schools and to parents the notion of calories in and calories out, to teach kids that’s what it is really about. I have a lot of problems with that,” said Faith Boninger who researches school commercialism for the National Education Policy Center. “You have a food industry instrument for promoting their message to children that is masquerading as being broad-based. It’s hiding food industry leaders behind this organization. It’s also masquerading this to kids as fact because when they are taught this perspective at school by their teachers.”

Meanwhile, as teachers are feeling financially squeezed since their districts often can’t afford to pay them a salary that meets the cost of living in their area, corporations can swoop in. Uber is encouraging teachers to drive for them by offering them bonuses if they complete a certain number of rides, and in some areas, Uber tells passengers part of their fare (a paltry 3 percent in Oregon) will go toward public schools if their driver is a teacher, as the Nation reported. Uber also features teachers’ personal stories, which explain how Uber is helping them meet their financial needs, on its website.

In addition to advertising through fundraisers, posters, and educational campaigns, experts on commercial activity in schools say the concentration on improving technology in schools also makes it easier for corporations to get involved. For example, Verizon has offered to donate iPad cases emblazoned with Verizon logos to schools, and the Internet search engine Bing lets schools access a special ad-free search engine. Bing’s efforts sound laudable, but they’re also introducing students to their product through the school.

The corporatization of schools is deeply harmful

Experts on commercialism in schools — an area that encompasses everything from corporate fundraisers like McTeacher’s Nights to free advertising to providing supplies with corporate logos — say that although this involvement may seem innocuous, it is deeply harmful to both students and teachers.

Research shows that children’s minds are particularly vulnerable to advertising because they don’t understand the persuasive intent of ads until they reach their preteens. In this context, it’s not necessarily wise for schools to abdicate their responsibility to provide an education that is factually accurate and free of corporate interference.

“I understand how schools get drawn into this, but it does threaten the integrity of the education students are receiving,” Boninger said. “Because when school teachers are transmitting values of corporations and perspectives of corporations to their students as facts they’re learning in school, that’s a violation of the integrity of their education.”

It also sends a message that public schools are a charity, not a public good that the government should fully fund, Golin said.

“That’s a violation of the integrity of their education.”

“It’s concerning because we should be sending the message that public education should be publicly funded, and the money these corporations are are giving doesn’t even come close to meeting these budget gaps. But you know they get warm fuzzy feelings for it,” Golin said. “The fact that so often these companies are demanding that kind of recognition and direct access to the students really shows that their motivation isn’t being good corporate citizens.”

And according to Cecily Myart-Cruz, NEA vice president of United Teachers, Los Angeles, activities like McTeacher’s Nights are often happening in low-income communities that are already contending with health problems. By promoting unhealthy food to students by encouraging them to come to these events, students and their families are putting their health at risk.

Teachers may also feel pressured to participate, lest they appear as if they aren’t supporting school pride, said Kara Kaufman, press secretary at Corporate Accountability International.

“I know from some of my conversations with teachers across the country, that several teachers expressed frustration that as employees of school, they sometimes feel pressured into participating even if they feel these kinds of events go against their own internal moral compass,” Kaufman said.

Policy is failing to protect students

Policies aren’t addressing rampant commercialism in schools either. Many schools don’t have policies against corporate involvement in schools, and very few states bar this activity. The only federal legislation that addresses the issue is specific to advertising food that wouldn’t be eaten at school, but that still doesn’t prevent the promotion of events like McTeacher’s Night.

“The administrators have become cheerleaders for the brand.”

New York and California both bar commercial activity in schools, but they also distinguish between commercial activity and sponsorship. Sponsorship is allowed, so in California’s case, a school district can display its appreciation of a company’s support of the school. Meanwhile, a New York State Regents rule doesn’t allow schools to enter into agreements that allow for promotion of commercial activity at school, but does allow for commercial sponsorship — which provides a loophole for corporations.

“If a school wants to say we’re in such a bad bind financially that we feel like we have no choice, and we’ve weighed the pluses and minuses, and — although there are a lot of minuses — we feel like we need to go ahead, I’ll disagree with that decision,” Golin said. “But at least we’re acknowledging there are negatives to this.”

“The administrators have become cheerleaders for the brand, saying McDonald’s is wonderful, and so there is no downside,” he added. “Obviously when you’re talking about teachers serving junk food to kids, there is a tremendous downside.”