Reinforcing Ideology by Fundraising in B.C. Public Schools: How Government and Corporations are Capitalizing from Children

This post was initially drafted on February 9th, 2018. I have now revised it. The reasons to do this are many, but mostly because since its initial publication, there have been additional examples provided by the government-funded school system being involved in business deals with the private sector (e.g. selling advertising for things like martial arts programs using the school’s email listserv, taking students to fields trips to fire halls to learn about fire safety for the children to arrive home talking solely about winning an iPad and showing a glossy book they received full of private advertisements and so on). The problem of private sector partnerships with publicly-funded schools seems to be systemic and therefore requires a comprehensive analysis. 

Fundraising in B.C. Public Schools: How Government and Corporations are Capitalizing off of Children

By PJR Allen

Let me tell you a story about public school fundraisers. It’s not a good situation. BC schools have become taxpayer subsidized advertising agencies. The Preamble

In Canada, where I live, public schools are supposedly funded, owned, governed, and operated by the government. At least at face value this seems to be the case, or how it is presented to the taxpaying public. The truth is, perhaps this is instead a half-truth, as I will demonstrate in the following narrative.

Before I illustrate the state of affairs in BC public schools, I will first say why the private sector shouldn’t be allowed to invest in the public for profit. For one, allowing one business to advertise or profit through partnerships with the school system creates a slippery slope argument for every tax paying business and individual to promote their wares to a captivate audience – children and students of a government-funded education system. Allowing for one business to advertise using the school’s parent email listserv could lead to billboards on school property. Allowing for one business to advertise or partner with a then allows for everyone. The argument here is that public schools aren’t advertising conduits for private business, nor are they to be bought by private capital as this could lead to problems spanning from conflict of interest to criticisms of mirroring capitalist ideology on to students.

There are various reasons why having exclusively government funded and operated schools is a necessarily a good thing. Indeed, we pay a lot of taxes to support this social good. There are various reasons why our society and culture do things this way. For one, there is a strong belief in the public that education leads to overall social prosperity. That, for instance, getting a good education will lead to a better adult existence because of the ability to find a job and accumulate wealth (although education could be better positioned as intrinsically valuable as disassociated from the economy). But education intended just to manufacture the workforce of the future is deeply fraught as well and posits many ethico-political issues I will deal with on another post.

Another reason to want public education is that the more we educate people, supposedly the stronger the democracy. This is debatable though because it would largely depend on what is being ‘educated’ to offer an analysis as to whether or not said education contributes to democratic tendencies.

At any rate, these kinds of ideals come as advertised by government and are programmed into our collective psyche. We are told to entrust the government to collect our taxes (gained from our labour) and redistribute it to the things that we collectively believe are worth funding. So if government fails to support or properly fund social goods such as schools, we tend to become frustrated and look to finding other avenues to provide support or complain to the bureaucracy about their failure to execute the our democratic agenda.

But what happens when government doesn’t properly fund a public school? This article will provide a case study and analysis in efforts to answer this question.

try these out A Case of the Silent Neoliberal Takeover of Public Schools by Private Capital 

Last week an email arrived in my inbox from my kids school. It simply said (paraphrased) that a catalogue for candy is being sent home with my kids and that this is because they want to sell chocolate to support funding shortfalls at the school. The email said nothing more, so I followed up to find out other details that might be important to know. For instance, I wanted to know why the school needs to do this? Why does the school need more money when the government is supposedly funding them with our tax money?

Even deeper questions came about when I started thinking about the actual underlying themes behind this fundraising initiative. For instance, was it the case that a public school was asking children to sell chocolate to (1) support their own education, and secondarily (2) to return a profit to a private company? Was it both or just one of these? Which was the primary intent? Could it possibly be the case that our school system allowed a private company to leverage their goods over the school such to turn children into a salesforce to benefit the private sector? Could government truly be asking children to fund their own school through cooperation with private companies?

Out of curiosity I asked these kinds of questions in response to the ambiguous email I got about the fundraiser.

I got a response.

They are in fact using children and their families to sell a good for a private company with a return of 25% of the proceeds. As a mathematical deduction this means the company is taking 75% of the proceeds. Furthermore it means that the company also stands to gain from mobilizing a salesforce through the use of child labour as well as benefit from the marketing as every home in this school had this catalogue sent home.

Other information was included in the response email about what a ‘great’ fundraiser this is and how it benefits the school. The response cited that the money generated funds school infrastructure such as water fountains and supporting extracurricular activities such as field trips.

The argument for this kind of fundraiser is twofold. On the one hand, a school cannot ever seem to have enough money, so any kind of initiative to benefit the school is generally accepted. The second argument is that government will rail on about how extracurricular activities such as field trips should not be their financial problem, as it wouldn’t be possible to fund every school in such a way, and thus they won’t favour one school over another. This is what I call a sophist’s claim of ‘ bureaucratic fallacy from impossibility‘ (BFFI). This is a typical self-serving half-baked consequentialist argument on resource allocation that you come to expect from government. In comes in the form of, “They just cannot” do something, it is “out of the question” because this is “the way things are” and “they can’t do anything about it” because they have “no money” or “no budget” due to “factors they cannot control”. The BFFI, by the way, is ideology of the neoliberal capitalist kind. They can, in fact, do whatever they want to do – they just won’t, especially if it implies funding a public service with tax revenues.

And conversely it is – in fact – the government’s job to do something and they can in fact do it. 

Keep in mind, the government I’m referring to in this case is the government of British Columbia, a government that lost $1.3B in their socialized auto insurance scheme last year. When confronted with the audacity of such fiscal mismanagement, their own head government lawyer got on a podium and declared the situation a “financial dumpster fire”. Another example of financial ineptitude to keep in mind is the case where a bridge in the City of Victoria has gone years past deadline and 60+ million over budget, yet no one seems to want to audit or decry this kind of mismanagement or address the problem of wasted resources in the form of taxes. Indeed, a municipal government doesn’t fund or operate schools, but taxes are taxes – if we didn’t need to tax in one place, the money could be redirected to where it is most needed.

I digress. Do not mistake this article as an argument from the right that undermines the usefulness or efficiencies of socialized government-funded programs. The argument isn’t against these at all. If anything this post is intended to say that the left is empowering the right by making mistakes in management and communications that allows for right-wing neoliberal criticism for defunding and the privatization of social goods.

The extent of ideological influence in this case is remarkable. In reaction to these kinds of stories people tend to remain affixed with head in ground thinking they ‘can’t do anything about it,’ in a kind of alienated learned helplessness. Notice the similar reaction to the bureaucracy – “We’re all just disempowered to promote any kind of change!”  The upshot here is that the government can, in fact, properly fund a school system. The logic follows that if they can find the money to support said ‘financial dumpster fires’ and boondoggle bridges, they can find the money to pay for earthquake supplies and water fountains in their own schools without the need for volunteer parents to sell chocolate bars or allow for private sector advertising deals in public schools.

In truth, the problem of school underfunding is political will and ideology, not financial incapacity. But this is a given, isn’t it?

Perhaps the only valid claim for fundraising through private sector partnerships is that but for these partnerships, the students would not be able to do various things due to lack of funds. And because the general public feels disempowered to force the government to provide funding for their needs, or that the needs are politically qualified as ‘wants’, they simply capitulate and just fundraise without even trying to influence government. This kind of argument isn’t valid, though, because the parents are taxpayers and therefore should have some influence on government funding in their schools. That is to say: it isn’t likely that parents who pay taxes are interested in walking door-to-door to sell chocolate or some other products for private companies to fund the school they are already supposedly funding with their taxes.

So much for the ‘pro’ school-private sector fundraising arguments as there isn’t much to defend. There is no good reason for government not to properly fund schools, so there isn’t any good reason to require fundraisers, especially ones that invite private companies to employ families and children to work for them.

Now for the ‘Con’ Arguments 

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of reasons for why this kind of fundraising (corporate charity) should not go on:

1: Privatization 

If you allow a private company to aid in funding public schools, then you’re allowing for our school system to be quietly bought by the private sector. What do I mean? Well, if the school comes to be reliant on the funds generated from the sales for this corporation, then the corporation has leverage or a stake in the public school. Once a school relies on private fundraising charity, then it becomes addicted to it and cannot pass it up. The result of this subtle manipulation is an eventual handoff to private capital to operate our public schools. By allowing for private companies to buy into our schools, government is basically stating that education is not entirely under their full purview and that it should be up to private capital to fund our education system. This doesn’t work because schools are publicly operated government mandated entities. This then generates a conflict of interest for government. Is it the case that they are allowing for private companies to influence and passively purchase our education system? If so, then this requires a democratic consensus.

2: Child Labour

The argument against child labour. For some reason, a 25% return in the form of sales commission doesn’t come off as an employment arrangement. The child who is selling on behalf of the school in their deal with a private company is, in fact, using children to profit. The overload counterexample in this scenario is to ask if it seems acceptable in other similar circumstances. For instance, if you asked someone to have your six-year-old sell cars or jewelry at a dealership or storefront to fund a public school, this would incite outrage and perhaps make the evening news. Why? Because we tend to think that work for pay is only for people above a certain age category and that little kids shouldn’t be working. In fact, the labour laws in British Columbia state the following:

“Under the B.C. Employment Standards Act, children who are 12 or older, but have not yet turned 15, cannot be employed without the written consent of a parent or legal guardian. Children under 12 years of age cannot be employed without a child employment permit issued by the Director of Employment Standards.” 

Now the counterargument here is that this kind of thing flies under the radar of the definition of ’employment’. It might not be argued that selling candy for money to donate to a school is ’employment’ proper. The argument to avoid the child labour criticism might be tortured into something like, “They aren’t getting paid directly, so it’s not a job” or “there is no labour contract”, “we don’t hire them directly” and so on. Of course you could argue the previous, but the facts of this case argue otherwise. The 25% kick back from sales on behalf of the private company is really just sales commission and the donation to the schools is mandatory. In fact, one might argue that if you’re going to allow for child employment at all then they ought to keep the money they generate and that it shouldn’t just be guaranteed to the school. You could effectively argue that while this might be skirting labour laws, the real bad actor here is government because they’re allowing for children to work to fund their deliberately underfunded schools. Also, since government makes the laws and enforces them, then they also allow for this kind of thing to happen.

Cultural hegemony becomes apparent in this case. The school is allowing for children to work for money on their behalf. These children are funding their own education. Could there be anything more ideologically capitalist than exploiting labour to benefit the capitalist class in a public school?

Gramsci and Althusser are rolling over in their graves.

But let’s now assume a parent consents to their child working in this arrangement. After all, participating in this kind of fundraiser is not mandatory but voluntary. In this example compared to current labour legislation, no consent was asked for and the government hasn’t signed off on allowing for it.  Without this consent and without this sign-off (according to the legal framework in place), this could actually be argued illegal on the basis that consent is simply presumed and that the government green-lights it. Again, though, this all depends on what they consider ’employment’. But the irony here is that if the government followed its own labour laws and had the Director of Employment Standards write a permission letter in every instance, school fundraising would fall to pieces and become pointless as the funds invested in the bureaucratization of such a thing would be much more expensive than the revenues accrued from door-to-door chocolate peddling.

And herein lies a gargantuan irony: The government has labour laws in place to protect children from exploitation, but then allows for child labour to fund schools that they don’t properly fund. So for the government, there is a double standard – “So long as kids work for private capital to fund their own schools, we don’t care about our own labour laws or where the money comes from.”

Perhaps I’ve invested in a red herring in the above as it seems to me that any argument about allowing for child labour at all is wrong. So if the laws allow for it, the norms and values underpinning the laws require renovation and reform.

3: Bureaucratic Moralization 

Think now specifically of families of lower socioeconomic status (e.g. ‘poor people’). Imagine what it would be like (maybe you’re actually poor and know what it’s like) to have your child arrive home from a public school with a catalogue for chocolates, some costing upwards of $30.00. The message that comes home is that the child is told to sell these chocolates to support the school because, for some understated reason(s), the schools lack funding. The problem, though, is that some (most) families don’t have any money for chocolates, so they have to tell your child that you cannot afford it. The point here is that this kind of fundraiser puts pressure on families to buy things they don’t need by way of subtle coercion. A child could feel left out or bad because they can’t have any of this candy.

This kind of situation is not ideal, is it? Schools are in place to allow for all socioeconomic classes to benefit from them, not just specific segments. That’s really the point of public education: making education attainable to everyone to despite ideologically constructed social classes. On this logic then, making people with lower socioeconomic statuses (again, ‘poor’ or ‘poorer’ people) feel bad about their situation isn’t the role of government. When government allows for something like this, they’re actually failing to acknowledge there are poor people out there that cannot afford it.

This kind of ethical issue has been perennially raised by the problem of Christmas gifting and the false notion that ‘Santa Claus’ gives every child fair treatment. Of course, this kind of thinking is really only serving very  brash consumerist values that only really punish and shame people for having less money to spend. This is also a foreshadow as to why something like this is even considered in our public school systems (hint: ideology).

And herein lies yet another behemoth irony:  Schools are operated by government under the belief that they are a social good. If they don’t properly fund them, then oftentimes people with the means to do so send their children to private schools (which, ironically are funded by government). If you defund education systems to the point of disrepair and overall dysfunction, then you have a political talking point about how they ought to be left to private capital (the ‘neoliberalization of everything’). They often play out this garbage argument with healthcare. Their sleight-of-hand is to let the system fall apart by defunding it under the “BFFI”, and argue that you don’t have any money to fix it leaving the only logical solution to be private capital. Of course, no one asks, “Well, you’re in charge or maintaining the system, how did this happen, how did you let it get out of hand?” To which they perpetually answer, “We have no money, it’s a bad economy…” or, “It’s a lie! The schools have proper funding!”

In reality, government, unlike private capital has what could be argued as an endless supply of revenue generated from taxation. Not only do they control resource allocation, they also control the laws for taxation altogether. Given all of this control, to the argue the “BFFI” or deny funding shortfalls for things like earthquake supplies comes off as sheer incompetence.

But again, I repeat: This is not an argument from the right to add fodder to undermine the government of provide additional cause to privatize. This is an argument for the government to start to sew up the holes in their policy and governance models to avoid criticisms.

5: Internal Policy Contradictions

Then there are the underlying contradictions with selling chocolate in schools. Take for instance the school ‘initiative’ platitudes about promoting a ‘healthy’ diet. This is a minor one, but still worth noting. This school (and other schools) prohibit students from sending candy to the school in their lunch boxes. School systems are now gagging out all kinds of ethical reasons to stop people from taking chocolate to school based on ‘evidence based’ statements emanating from the health bureaucracy and the media. The contradiction and irony here is that financial gains from the sale of candy are encouraged and welcomed by the school, but please do not take it to school as it is prohibited. Indeed, the school must think that chocolate only becomes unhealthy if it is consumed on their premises.

6: Accounting 

The entire situation isn’t nearly close to acceptable. Even basic questions about accounting and transparency about fundraising in schools aren’t satisfied. How is it they know how much money they’ve raised? Do they get an independent audit from the company? Moreover, ethical questions abound surrounding “who decides” where the funds are appropriated are not adequately answered. I mean, does the school even know if they’re getting 25% of something? What does this mean? If the company sets their own prices, then is it 25% of the gross? Net? What is the cost to produce these chocolates? Is this disclosed? Do they have a well-argued and articulated contract that protects the rights of the school and the children/families?

Another irony in all of this is that we’re actually working against ourselves in this kind of arrangement. When you buy a good or service, then the government charges a tax. This tax is then supposedly redistributed to schools, hospitals, and infrastructure projects. You’d think that in the very least, this kind of thing would be tax exempted. Since taxes are applicable to sale of chocolate and the company’s income, then why not pressure the government to make this kind of thing either tax exempt or have them redirect all of the tax revenue back at funding the school?

When I look back at it, I remember as a child the situation was even worse. While they still had candy based fundraisers, they also had children selling chocolate bars door-to-door in a sales competition! If you sold the most, then you’d win some insignificant prize. In that example, they added a secondary incentive to their labour sales force to sell more product. Of course, as a child, you have no idea what is actually going on, you just see chocolate and money, you don’t realize that you’re being used to fund the education system you were promised by your government, let alone indirectly be employed in a sales role for a private business.

Ideological by Design and Intent 

The concept of ‘Education’ is a socially normative and value-laden concept. The core question of public education is what is it we ought to be educating our children?

When your local school is left to generate funding from private capital, what this really says to children and families is that you don’t need education per se because selling chocolate will pay for things. If you can sell really well, you’ll make money! And since money (and the accumulation of it) is societies current ethical maxim, then who cares about art, philosophy, drama, maths, etc. For instance, we tend to think nowadays that ‘STEM’ (‘Science, technology, engineering, maths’) curriculum is the focus and therefore ‘right’ way to educate our kids. Of course, there is no ‘right’ way to educate a child, there are just ‘ways’. The point here is, making such a distinction on what should be educated is actually an ethical one (or else we wouldn’t be able to argue in terms of ‘should’). If we set out to teach our children that selling candy is how you come to have a water fountain or field trip, this is a kind of psychological reinforcement that is grounded in ideological bias were desiring money is the focus. Indeed, it is really surprising that children are taught about maths in terms of money and economically innocuous things like stars, planets, or even smiles? You could count and mathematize anything, but there seems to be a core focus on counting dollars. Indeed, I urge you to try to find things that could be mathematized that aren’t easily relatable to money and sales. There are few things that could be fully exempted. For instance, if you set out to count apples, you could then apply economic prices of apples etc. Literally anything of value is for sale and the way we teach maths shows it. The business ontology in the educational system discourse is ubiquitous and problematic.

The direct message from government curriculum is that there are certain subjects that will lead to being a ‘useful’ or ‘productive’ in the workforce. This kind of rhetoric is, in fact, ideologically biased in neoliberal capitalist agenda. I know this because there is very little talk about how education is in intrinsic good – it is always linked to ‘success’, ‘productivity’ and or ’employment’. You see, we could change school curriculum to focus on topics such as post-structural philosophy, but this won’t lead to a job in today’s market economy. And if it doesn’t lead to a job or money, this tends to lead to the argument that we shouldn’t educate our children about it. What I’m getting at here is that the school system we’ve created is not about imparting a balanced education, as much as it about social programming to conform to their construction of social norms according to prevailing ideologies. Conform, abide, buy, sell, and so on. And selling for private companies and allowing schools to become advertising agencies subsidized by private companies is surely ideological and non-objective, and therefore, not something the government should be allowing.

Arguably, when you aim to ‘educate’ children in terms of ideological agendas, they become more amenable to agreeing with the ideas and premises that argue for its ultimate conclusions. In this case, what the school system (as opposed to ‘education system’) is actually stating is that there are things you need to know and others you don’t, we will make those decisions for you based on our beliefs and values. In this case, selling for private companies to fund popsicle sticks for science class is more valued than, for instance, teaching students about the political economy of doing so in the first place. That is to say, the right-wing argument isn’t just reinforced, it is being played out in action and normalized while the left-wing version of the narrative is buried entirely.

Objective attempts at education and pedagogy cannot be argued when schools allow for fundraisers that benefit private capital that are argued to be aimed at financing the school. Intentionally or not; conscious or not: this is an act that educates children to be salespeople for corporations.

A possible counterpunch against my argument here is since our schools are supposed to offer a ’rounded’ education, (e.g. sales, marketing, capitalist economics etc.) that selling candy to learn about the how the economy works should be part of the greater curriculum. Of course these should be. We should educate our kids about the market economy as well as the realities of democracy and government. But my argument is different. Mine suggests that we should not start out by making our children actors in this system such to quietly impart ideology upon them. Theory first, freedom of choice for free and un-coerced participation later. Children should be educated about the ethics and philosophies underlying these kinds of complex social systems, not made immediately made actors in it to fund their own education at the tender ages of 5-12 to fund curricula and infrastructure intended to reinforce the ideology.

The upshot of all of this is that without upholding a kind of balanced approach to education, our schools are simply teaching ideology and not offering our children a balanced and unbiased view of the world.

How do I know this is all artefact of ideology? When I present this argument to people I generally get: “But we’ve always sold candy or chocolate bars to fund public schools, it must be right…” Or “What an insignificant thing to pick on, leave it alone!” This, indeed, is a smoking gun for a Zizekian account of ideological blinding. By virtue of our education system and society at large, we’ve come to think that this is the only way to go about things. It has come to a point where it even comes off as alien for someone to question the ethics of a private partnership school fundraiser. Indeed, the prevailing attitudes and backtalk that I’ve gotten is that no one should question a school fundraiser even if it benefits a private company because, “This is the way it has always been done” and “We cannot change it” (again with the ‘BFFI’).

The irony is that this kind of thinking in endemic to social programming and artefact of the very education system we’ve created given ideological influences over time. Parents and administrators simply cannot see out of it and testing the status quo seems outright discomforting and, in some cases, evokes anger.  Conversely, what the BFFI shows that we and they can, in fact, change it. If it was possible to put this problematic system in place, then it is possible to reform it and put in another one. This isn’t happening though because it is easier to sit in comfortable complacency on the status quo than it is to force progress.

All in all, the bigger picture is that we’re fundraising to maintain and reinforce ideologies that may or may not serve our best interests. In the era of imminent climate crisis, for instance, reinforcing neoliberal capitalist ideology in public schools might be swimming against the current.

It’s time to criticize, question the status quo, and break this cycle.

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