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School Business Partnerships: Who Wins in the End?

I read a recent ThinkProgress blog post by Casey Quinlan and had a flashback to my years as Superintendent in Western Maryland where we worked with local businesses to forge partnerships that we saw as win-win for us, for our students, and for the business partners. The ThinkProgress post was particularly pointed since it featured the McDonald’s Golden Arches and the partnership we forged with McDonald’s was one that gained us favorable press. At a luncheon with local businessmen I struck up a conversation with the owner of several McDonald’s “stores” in our region and lamented that many of our students were sacrificing their studies in order to earn money to buy a car, get clothes their parents couldn’t afford, and— in some cases— save for college. In the course of the conversation we came up with an idea: what if McDonald’s gave our students who worked a “bonus” if they made the honor roll at school? Over the course of the next few weeks we set up a mechanism to make this work and before long the radio stations were touting this initiative. I got some pushback from parents and teachers who thought we were promoting part-time work. But as one who mowed lawns, delivered newspapers, and did numerous odd jobs to pay for my freshman year at a five-year cooperative work-study college I saw working while in school as a necessity. Moreover, I felt it was wrongheaded for schools to look down on those students who need to work to help make ends meet while lionizing student-athletes, drama club members, and musicians who spend hours outside of the classroom on activities that are voluntary and arguably purely recreational. There were others who pushed back because— well— because it was McDonalds! It seemed crass or somehow immoral to work collaboratively with an organization that plundered the environment and served high calorie junk food.

The ThinkProgress blog describes a different kind of partnership between McDonald’s and schools: one that involves teachers working for free on an evening shift at McDonalds and using their earnings that evening to fund field trips. I can imagine a McDonald’s executive arguing that this is no different than having the teachers be targets at a dunking booth at a local fair where fried dough is the primary food source because McDonald’s is, after all, the local gathering place in some communities the way the county fair was at one time. But the difference is that in Western Maryland McDonalds was showing student-employees that they valued classroom achievement and were paying more from their coffers to do so. In the ThinkProgress example, the McDonald’s is trying to lure customers into their establishment, reduce their costs, and arguably demean the teaching profession.

While I am unalterably opposed to businesses eroding the revenue stream for schools by seeking sweetheart deals on property taxes, I DO think there are opportunities for win-win partnerships.

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