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Wanna Buy Some Candy? School Fundraising & Inequality

Dang, what’s a parent to do. Every school year cash strapped school districts (which is basically all of them) ask their students to sell candy, or wrapping paper, or some other trinket to scrounge a few more dollars together to help educate their students. The problem is, poorer school districts tend to have poorer who come from poorer families. So it can be really hard for the students to find anyone to purchase their overpriced wares. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how we can understand these school fundraising woes with the sociological imagination and then explains how a concept called the Matthew Effect works to perpetuate school inequality. 

I have been thrust full-force into the world of fundraising, due to being a parent of a school-aged child. Seriously, at any given moment I can hook you up with wrapping paper or chocolates and sometimes both. Of course, all this selling presents a personal trouble for me. I do a combination of choosing not to sell due to the product or how the funds are going to be used, actively selling, and donating directly instead of selling. When I actively sell, I have to figure out who my potential customers might be.

So who are my customers? Let’s examine the city in which I work. The average household income for this small Midwestern city is $35,194. Broke down further, 57% of households (or 4,425 households) earn less than $40,000 each year, while 6% (or 252.5 households) earn $100,000 or more each year. In other words, most residents simply can not afford to buy my high-priced wrapping paper and chocolates, which is why I also choose not to sell or donate instead of sell. The reality is that I am not the only parent in this predicament, suggesting thatwhat looks like a personal trouble (i.e., lack of rich people in my social network), may in fact be a public issue (i.e., lack of a critical mass of rich households in a community).

In The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills distinguished between troubles and issues when describing the sociological imagination. Mills argued that a person’s biography could not be understood without also understanding the historical moment in which that biography was created. In other words, the historical context matters.

Let’s hone in on school fundraising as one source of school support. The historical context for school funding includes overall declining tax revenue and delays in the state paying school districts what they are owed. In particular, property taxes play a large role in school funding, making up 38.2% of the funding sources in the community in which I work. If property values decline in a community without an increase in the property tax rate, then there will be less revenue from property taxes. School districts adapt by cutting programs and positions. They also adapt by relying more on fundraising to pay for programming the district once paid for itself.

In other words, the historical context is that schools rely on fundraising more during a time when community members are less able to  support fundraising efforts as customers. My customer base, then, is quite small.

Compounding my small customer base is the return the fundraising organization earns from sales. If my organization opts to keep 25% of sales, then this keeps prices lower. If my organization opts to keep 30% of sales, then the prices of items will be higher. Let’s see how the math works in a hypothetical scenario:

Scenario 1: 25% Return

  • One box of chocolate costs $5
  • Customer A buys one box of chocolate for every person on her holiday shopping list, which includes 5 people. Her total is $25 and earns the organization $6.25.

Scenario 2: 30% Return

  • One box of chocolate costs $7
  • Customer A buys one box of chocolate for every person on her holiday shopping list, which includes 5 people. Her total is $35 and earns the organization $10.50.

As a fundraising organization, it is in our interest to charge the higher amount because we earn more money on every item sold. The problem is that we have a smaller pool of customers who could buy $7/box of chocolate compared to our pool of customers who can buy $5/box of chocolate.

My customers, however, can not afford to pay $7 per box. Few can pay $5 per box. In a higer income community, my organization would have no problem opting to charge higher rates. This is a classic example of The Matthew Effect which posits that the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer is evident.

The school organizations in higher income school districts are able to raise more funds than school organizations in lower income school districts. Fundraising as a stop-gap measure to make up for lack of state funds and declining property tax revenue, means that inequality is simply perpetuated. Fundraising does not and can not make up for inequality across school disctricts.

More and more school districts are relying on fundraising to preserve programs and reduce class sizes that were once adequately funded through property taxes and state support. What looks like a private trouble (my inability to sell $7/box chocolates), is actually a public issue (evidence of increasing inequality and reduced public support for public schools).

Dig Deeper:

  1. Describe the sociological imagination.
  2. Using an example, distinguish between troubles and issues.
  3. Describe the Matthew Effect. Find and describe another example of how the Matthew Effect works.
  4. Do you agree or disagree with the author’s assessment that school funding perepetuates inequality? Explain.