Bake Sales, Telethons and DonorsChoose...Oh My!

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Recently, the Entertainment Industry Foundation, the 4 major networks and, a crowd funding website that targets schools and teachers, announced "Think It Up," a nationally-televised "edu-telethon" to be aired live on Friday, Sep. 11 by ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox at 8pm. According to the EIF, the purpose of this strongly STEM-slanted program is to "invite public middle and high school students to work with their teachers to develop projects that draw on their passions and help pursue their educational goals...In collaboration with, the student-powered, teacher-led projects will be crowdfunded by citizen donors beginning September 2015. The projects will entail rigorous skill development that prepares American youth for post-high school life, helping pave the way for career success, regardless of the path." 


Careful readers will notice a few "trigger words" here ("educational goals," "rigor," "career success") that suggest a strong corporate reform agenda may be lurking beneath the surface of this telethon. Indeed, major funders of include the Gates Foundation (the major financial support behind the development and implementation of the Common Core and a host of other education reform initiatives), the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation (a strong supporter of charter schools in the Pacific Northwest), and the Morgridge Family Foundation (a supporter of KIPP).


So, what's the problem? Isn't it a good thing when foundations show their support for education and student learning? What's so wrong with "crowd-sourcing" funds for educational projects and materials during a time of declining school budgets and shrinking resources? Why turn down offers of "assistance" when money is so desperately needed for public education?


Here's the problem: Every time that a foundation "steps up" to make a donation to a public school, the school district is then relieved of its social, legal, moral and ethical responsibilities to provide materials and equipment necessary for the education of our children. Public support for education has long been a given in our country, and we generally have not questioned the need to adequately support our public institutions.

However, in education, we are now seeing public education subverted in many communities on a daily basis, from community programs that send uncertified "teaching artists" into schools that have eliminated their music and art programs, to, a website that provides a portal for teachers to use their own personal resources to purchase teaching materials from other teachers, to increasingly onerous "pay to play" requirements for participation in athletics, music and other school programs. For example, some California high schools have been investigated by the ACLU after charging participation fees ranging from $500 to play in marching band to nearly $1700 for cheerleading fees.

In each instance, these actions serve to redirect sources of school support from public revenues (i.e., tax support) to private donations (from parents and fellow teachers). This shift mirrors the trend in higher education nationally, where public funding for universities has decreased from roughly 70% in 1990 to less than 30% in 2014. According to a report from Demos, "The decreasing affordability of higher education is eroding the last relatively secure path into the middle class, as more students take on larger amounts of debt to finance their higher educations, or forego it altogether. With $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt and climbing, student loan debt is now substantial enough to affect our overall economy as indebted graduates find it harder to buy a home or a car. Not surprisingly, the corporate reform agenda would appear to be propelling K-12 education down a similar path.


So, while I know this “made for TV special” is going to make folks feel all warm and fuzzy as they watch school projects get funded via DonorsChoose donations, it worries me that we seem to be sliding down a slippery slope to a time in which the public doesn't even question the premise of education being funded by telethons instead of our tax dollars.


Let's be clear here: Education is a public trust, not a charity. It deserves to be funded adequately and appropriately, not by bake sales, paper drives and telethons.


Let’s also stop forcing students, teachers and schools to beg for funding by performing like trained seals on TV specials, as though education was some sort of televised Hunger Games, and start supporting our schools adequately, and without making teachers and kids grovel.

"Think It Up" is a spectacle that just illuminates what we as a society value, and what we don’t—and that reflection in the mirror isn't pretty.