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PTA sales fests: Should parents pay so their kids can play?

After Angela Parks complained about children being kept out of a school festival and magic show if their parent didn’t sell 10 items, Prospect Elementary sent this notice home.
After Angela Parks complained about children being kept out of a school festival and magic show if their parent didn’t sell 10 items, Prospect Elementary sent this notice home. Courtesy of Angela Parks

Angela Parks was furious when her 6-year-old son came home in tears, afraid he’d have to sit out a magic show at school if he couldn’t sell 10 rolls of wrapping paper for a fundraiser at Union County’s Prospect Elementary.

She created a social media storm when she posted her outrage – and wasn’t satisfied when the school offered the alternative of paying a $15-per-child fee for the magic show and fall festival.

As a former PTA president and teacher’s daughter, Parks says she understands the Waxhaw school’s desire to raise money. But as a mother of eight who has struggled to pay for groceries, she says fees and sales goals that seem small to some families are insurmountable barriers for others.

“Parents might think it’s just a silly magic show,” she said. “For that one child who is in a bad financial situation, they don’t need this rubbed in their nose.”

Union County school leaders seem confounded by Parks’ outrage and ongoing questions from people like me. The school did say the magic show and festival, held during school hours, was a reward “to the students that did their part and sold 10 items.” And it did follow up by saying parents who didn’t meet that quota needed to send $15 by Nov. 17 to get their kids into the Nov. 20 event.

But the principal told Parks that the school won’t really exclude any students. The quotas and fees are just part of the fundraising strategy, district spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte said.

The money raised by Prospect’s PTO pays for classroom supplies and new bleachers in the gym, covers field trip fees for students who can’t afford them, buys gear for classes to use during recess and funds celebrations to honor good grades, attendance and behavior.

Those are all great results. Around the region, PTAs and PTOs raise money for classroom technology, teacher morale-builders and other activities that make schools better places to study and work.

Some would say any strategy that boosts that bottom line is justified.

But I still can’t see a case for excluding students from school festivals because their parents fail to hit a sales quota.

This isn’t just a Union County thing. I encountered this tactic when my son started school in Gaston County some 20 years ago. I’m dismayed that it’s still going on.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools says it’s up to schools to decide whether to use school facilities and time for fundraising festivals, and if so, whether to allow exclusion based on sales.

I understand that PTA leaders and principals who go this route are hard-working people who care deeply about their schools. I just wonder whether they’ve really thought about the rules of the game:

1. Fundraising companies are businesses, not charitable aid societies.

Parent groups are out to support schools, but profit is the main goal driving the companies that supply the products. That’s not evil. It’s just worth keeping in mind when they dictate terms.

2. Those companies use children to motivate parents.

Some people say selective rewards teach kids the value of hard work and competition. Come on – does anyone really think a bunch of entrepreneurial 6-year-olds are raising tens of thousands of dollars for their schools?

We the parents are the ones selling and buying gift wrap, chocolates and all the other staples of the PTA economy.

If we were employees, the company could reward success with commissions and punish failure with firing. But you need different tactics for a volunteer sales force. So kids come home with brochures promising big prizes for top sellers and a glitzy celebration for everyone who, in the words of the Prospect notice, does their part. Mom and Dad realize that their ability to write a check and/or sell to a network of co-workers, friends and family will determine whether their child revels in victory or sits the party out.

3. Not every family can pay for their children to play.

Those of us who take disposable income for granted tend to think the minimum sales quotas are so low that anyone could do it.

But just because hardship isn’t visible at your school doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent.

Physical and mental illness, family breakup, addiction, job loss and financial setbacks aren’t things that happen only on the other side of town. All kinds of crises can knock a PTA fundraiser right off a family’s radar.

These children are already under tremendous stress. Now imagine telling them they’ll be shunted aside while their classmates who earned a party have a good time.

And parents may feel ashamed of their struggles. That’s why it’s not good enough to say they can ask for an exception, or to try to coerce their participation with threats that aren’t carried out.

4. Some parents simply choose not to sell. That’s their right.

We already have compulsory fundraisers for public schools. They’re called taxes.

Those taxes pay for a fixed amount of school time. I’m open to debate on whether some of those hours should be used for schoolwide sales celebrations, and on how much money should go toward prizes for top sellers.

But when the company hosting the party says students should be shut out if their parents don’t sell, I see only one acceptable reply:

Not at our school.