Patti Bacchus: The Scholastic book fair problem

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      How would you feel about Nike pop-up shops in B.C.’s public schools? Would it bother you if they sent home advertising flyers in your kids’ backpacks and expected school staff and parents to work in the shops for free?

      What if they sent home a monthly Nike catalogue your kids could order from, and teachers collected and submitted their classes' orders and got a free basketball as a reward?

      I’d be mighty ticked off, and I hope you would too. But how is that different from publishing behemoth Scholastic Inc.—a publicly traded global corporation that earns about $1.65 billion in annual revenue and whose CEO takes home more than $4 million a year—using public schools, teachers, and kids’ backpacks to sell books, toys, posters, and trinkets to your kids?

      The company has been around in one form or another for almost a century, and it sells its wares by sending flyers to schools for teachers to distribute to students, along with pop-up “book fairs” staffed by school librarians and other school or parent volunteers.

      It’s a brilliant and shameless business model: use publicly funded schools instead of paying to buy or lease retail outlets, and have unpaid (or taxpayer-paid) labour distribute flyers, process orders, and deliver products while you save on advertising by having little Charlotte and Noah deliver your marketing materials from their classroom to their parents.

      Baubles sold through "clubs" and "fairs"

      Scholastic Inc. sells books and baubles two ways. The first is the catalogue-driven “book clubs” via school-to-home marketing that start with Scholastic sending catalogues to teachers for them to distribute to kids. The kids can look longingly at all the goodies they desire and take those flyers home to mom and dad and beg them to order them.

      Parents can fill in the forms and send them back with a cheque or credit-card number or go online and order. Or they can be awful, miserly people who won’t buy their poor children books and toys and who deny schools the kickbacks they rely on.

      Teachers keep track of orders and submit the ones that aren’t done online, and books and merchandising tie-ins are delivered to the school, where they are distributed to the kids who have loving parents who are kind and generous enough to buy them. Other kids get the opportunity to develop the important life skills of suppressing envy, sadness, and resentment and pretending they didn’t want any of that stuff anyway.

      I remember hating those flyers when my kids brought them home. Sure, there’d be books in them (including a lot of really crappy ones), but there would also be a whole lot of plastic junk, toys, and other merchandise tie-ins that were, inevitably, what my kids would be begging me to buy when they came running out of school, flyer in hand.

      They’d want books I knew weren’t at their reading level because they came with a glow-in-the dark pen or necklace. Those books would never become the kind of well-worn favourites the knowledgeable staff at our local bookstore would help us choose on special occasions. The rest of the time we borrowed books from the terrific children’s section at our local library branch.

      The baubles that Scholastic Inc. sells alongside the books aren’t always cheap, either. I took a quick gander at its “Booktober 2019” catalogue for grades K to 6. Those with fond memories of reading Goodnight Moon to their kids, as we did, might be interested in the accompanying “storybook projector for your phone” which comes with disks ($29.95).

      If that doesn’t grab you as a good educational investment, you might want a locking unicorn stationery box ($10) or a book about ninjas that comes with a mini figure ($18), or some animal books that come with adorable mini plush animals.

      If books aren’t your thing at all, you could go for a soap-making kit ($24) or a remote-control-car activity kit for $25. If you’re more into jewellery, you’ll find all kinds of bling, including “flow” rings and necklaces.

      If the catalogues aren’t annoying enough, there are the pop-up “book fairs”. That’s the second way Scholastic Inc. uses schools to sell products to your kids.

      The evils of in-school shopping

      When my kids were in elementary school, it perturbed me that their strings classes were cancelled for a week each year so the multipurpose room at their school could be transformed into a Scholastic pop-up store that sold books and a bunch of toys and sparkly trinkets.

      School staff and parent volunteers spent hours setting up the store, staffing it during the sale, taking orders, and then packing it all up. Meanwhile, I imagine the Scholastic CEO spent the week figuring out what to do with the hundreds of thousands of dollars he earned each month, or perhaps he was off somewhere warm, sailing on a yacht.

      It bugged me that the immensely profitable, publicly traded, multinational corporation used taxpayer-funded premises to sell books and associated junk to kids while they were at school, pushing out a music program for the week.

      Yes, in-school shopping. It’s a thing, but It shouldn’t be.

      The Vancouver School Board (VSB) had strong policy in place that was intended to prevent marketing and selling commercial products to kids at school, but enforcing it was like playing a game of Whac-A-Mole. After the board I was on was fired in 2016 by the former government, the policy was turned into some sort of administrative “procedure”.

      Although the VSB’s “procedure” opens with a clear statement that “Schools, as educational institutions with a ‘captive’ clientele, must not become vehicles for the circulation of materials intended primarily for commercial gain,” a district spokesperson told me that staff merely look at it “as a guide when making determinations about programs/activities in schools”.

      I miss the old days, when policies were meant to be followed and managers bothered to enforce them.

      Scholastic sells books, mostly. What’s not to like?

      It’s good to get kids excited about books, right? Well, a teacher I heard from one year told me how heart-wrenching it was when kids in the low-income community in which she taught were taken to “preview” the book “fair”. She said they were instructed to have kids do the pre-shop so they could invoke the nag factor to get parents to come to the book sale fair during class time. A “fair” sounds like so much fun, doesn’t it?

      These were kids whose families relied on food banks when their money ran out. She knew some kids would be able to buy stuff, but many would not. Inequality hurts, and having it rubbed in and compounded at school is wrong.

      Schools and teachers, and some parent advisory councils, go along with selling Scholastic products and setting up their pop-up stores in schools because it’s one of the few ways cash-strapped schools can get new books. Schools in low-income areas may sell a few hundred dollars' worth of books and toys, but you can bet those in wealthier neighbourhoods can process thousands of dollars in orders, exacerbating the inequities that already exists between public schools.

      Schools get a cut of the Scholastic sales and use that to stock libraries and classrooms. It also makes it hard for smaller publishers and bookstores to compete, given how low Scholastic can price its products by using schools to sell for them. I suspect it may have helped put smaller operators out of business.

      It’s been going on for decades. Schools shouldn’t feel compelled to flog Scholastic’s products for them, but the underfunding of schools and their libraries has become so normalized that few question the appropriateness of the school-to-home marketing model any more.

      Sorry, kids, but that’s how I see it

      I know a lot of kids love Scholastic catalogues and book fairs, and no doubt there are some whose love of reading was perhaps sparked by Scholastic products, but I’m betting there are some who remember how much it sucked feeling pressured to buy things their family couldn’t afford.

      I realize a lot of teachers and school librarians count on Scholastic sales to stock their classrooms and libraries and are willing to donate their time to give out the catalogues, take orders and payment, and distribute the products. I wish they didn’t feel they have to do that and that the government funded public schools enough so that teachers and librarians could focus their time and efforts on their actual jobs instead of finding ways to get the resources that should be provided to all schools.

      You don’t see doctors flogging vitamins and other stuff directly to their patients so they can get a cut for office supplies (at least I hope they don’t). We should be equally appalled that professionals who are paid to educate our children feel compelled to work for free for a huge corporation just so they can get some reading materials for their school.

      B.C.’s new school curriculum talks a lot about “critical and reflective thinking”. The school-to-home marketing model and in-school shopping at book fairs clearly warrant being subjected to the rigours of critical thought. The conclusion should be that sometimes “free"—as in those free books schools get in return for flogging Scholastic products to captive kids—may be too expensive.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.