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'Planet Money' examines the secret world behind school fundraisers

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A fixture of American education is the school fundraiser. But why? Sarah Gonzalez with our Planet Money podcast spent a year following one school's fundraising efforts to see how much they make and how the money is spent.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Some of you may be familiar with the school fundraiser kickoff assembly. There's music, and some non-school person is on a stage like, don't you want this glow-in-the-dark bike?

SOPHIA FABELA: He was just like, and this bubble blower.

ANDREW SMITH: I don't know if you know what this is actually - Nintendo Switch Lite.

(CHEERING)

GONZALEZ: I'm talking about assemblies like this one.

SMITH: My name is Mr. Cheesecake.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: Mr. Cheesecake - really Andrew Smith - known for getting students to sell cheesecake because, yeah, to win some of these prizes, kids have to sell stuff like wrapping paper at Christmastime, chocolate bunnies at Easter.

SMITH: So everyone put your hands like this. Pump them up and say big money.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Big money.

GONZALEZ: Every year, Villacorta Elementary in La Puente, Calif., tries to raise $20,000 to pay for things like outdoor science camp for the kids, a reptile show, nacho parties. And the person in charge of the fundraising is Maria Laris. She's been teaching at the school for 30 years and has proudly been on the Parent Teacher Association the entire time.

MARIA LARES: As a teacher, I say, PTA is my baby (laughter) and has been for all these years.

GONZALEZ: And Maria's No. 1 priority for the PTA this year is to raise enough money to send every single student on one field trip. The school didn't fundraise in time to do this last year, and without the PTA it might not happen.

Like, zero field trips? You wouldn't have any field trips?

GEORGE HERERRA: Very limited to what we could do.

GONZALEZ: This is the school's principal, George Hererra.

Do you have a budget for field trips?

HERERRA: I do have a budget, so it's sort of a give and take. You know, if I put it to field trips, then I shortchange somewhere.

GONZALEZ: The PTA needs, like, $8,000 to send the entire school on one field trip. That's for the cost of the school buses, plus the ticket for whatever museum or play each class wants to go to. And there are a couple kinds of fundraisers that they do, like sometimes the PTA sells things themselves, like T-shirts. Sometimes the teachers volunteer to sell things. Like recently, teachers basically worked at McDonald's for a couple hours one day.

LARES: Dr. Herrera is selling cookies (laughter) and I'm making fries and things like that.

GONZALEZ: So much effort.

And then you're like, for $500?

(LAUGHTER)

LARES: Yeah, I know it, I know it.

GONZALEZ: But the biggest fundraisers are when the students sell things. And for those, schools bring in, like, official school fundraising companies, the ones with the big money prizes. And those companies, they do a lot to try to win a school's business. Like, they take the PTA out.

LARES: Like, Olive Garden. I remember going Red Lobster.

GONZALEZ: Like, what do you mean? Like, they - (laughter).

LARES: They treat us so nice to try to get our business because they know PTAs have big business.

GONZALEZ: First product the students move? Popcorn. Eight-year-old Samantha Nicole Tan's strategy is to explain why you might enjoy the kettle corn.

SAMANTHA NICOLE TAN: Because it has, like, a sweet taste in there that mostly people like, but not all.

GONZALEZ: Ten-year-old Sophia Fabela's is to just give the popcorn catalog to her mom.

SOPHIA: So my mom took it to work - do, do, do - I got a lot of money.

GONZALEZ: Sophia sold 83 items, which did add up.

SOPHIA: Yeah, like $944 from the popcorn.

GONZALEZ: Students sold about $11,500 worth of popcorn stuff in total. But about 60% of the money goes to the fundraising company, 40% to the school.

LARES: So, I mean, it sounds beautiful, but we only get about 5,000 (laughter).

GONZALEZ: Now, economists would say if a school needs money, don't make people buy stuff or volunteer. Just ask for donations. Keep 100%. But Maria has found that people like to get something in exchange. And money the PTA raises, by the way, can fill a lot of gaps for a school. Like, Sophia and Samantha, two of the sales kids, they both made honor roll.

(CHEERING)

GONZALEZ: You guys, honor roll, that's like the best award.

And the principal had something for them.

HERERRA: Oh, we have a medal coming in for you. It didn't get here in time, but it should be here when we come back from break, OK?

GONZALEZ: Now here's what really happened with those medals.

HERERRA: So what happened today is...

GONZALEZ: The principal needed just $40, but he didn't have the money in the right pot.

HERERRA: So I have my office manager calling fiscal saying, can we move $40 over there? And he goes, nope. PTA is able to cut through a lot of the red tape.

GONZALEZ: PTA will just be like, here's $40.

HERERRA: Here's a check. Yeah, yeah.

GONZALEZ: What do you need the $40 for?

HERERRA: (Laughter) This was a particular - we wanted to buy medals that we want to give the students.

GONZALEZ: Is this what you were telling Sophia when you were like, I have a medal for you, but it's not here yet?

HERERRA: Yes, yeah.

GONZALEZ: These are the medals?

HERERRA: Those are the medals...

GONZALEZ: Oh, my gosh.

Now, OK, if a school really wanted to prioritize medals or field trips in their budget, they could, right? Villacorta Elementary gets about $16,000 per kid, which is more than the national average, but the district spends almost all of it on salaries for teachers, benefits, the cost of running the building. So what the principal gets to spend is closer to $1,200 per kid, some of which could go to field trips. But this principal chooses to instead spend that money on a teacher's aide for his students that are learning English, an attendance clerk because many of the kids miss a lot of school here.

HERERRA: For me, my decision is, you know, very academic-based, you know, what intervention do we need?

GONZALEZ: And this is surprisingly tactical because it is a lot easier to fundraise for medals and field trips than it is to, say - don't you want to donate money to help pay for the salary of our new attendance clerk? - which they could do. But wealthy schools, private schools, they all fundraise for the fun school perks instead because it works. One year and 10 fundraisers later, Villacorta Elementary was just shy of their $20,000 goal. The sixth graders are the first to go on a field trip to the aquarium. Mia Banuelos (ph) heads straight for the sharks.

Did you touch it?

MIA BANUELOS: I'm scared. Oh, it feels slimy and soft.

GONZALEZ: So that's one field trip. All of the other grades still have to go on one. And the school's next fundraiser starts March 18. They're selling peanut brittle.

Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah Gonzalez
Sarah Gonzalez is a host and reporter with Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in April 2018.

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