Here’s a public-private partnership not everyone is happy about. A Florida school district is teaming up with McDonald’s to reward good grades and attendance with Happy Meals. During the school year, information about students’ grades is sent home to parents in McDonald’s-themed folders. One critic is appalled:
“It’s a terribly troubling trend,” Ms. Linn said, because “it really, clearly links doing well in school with getting a Happy Meal.”
Well, yeah, it does. I don’t feel the need to get up in arms about this, but I can see how the program could annoy parents. Some people don’t eat at McDonald’s because of health reasons, beliefs in strict vegetarianism, or dietary restrictions imposed by any of several religions. Parents who fall into those categories don’t want to see a McDonald’s ad with every report card or to have to explain to their kids for the millionth time, "No, we can’t go get a Happy Meal like all your friends do."
An obvious solution is to offer rewards that don’t involve food. In some schools in Missouri, kids get to go to a Cardinals game as a reward for good grades. Bookstores could reward kids with a paperback novel, and kids might even read it and learn something.
If I were a parent in the McDonald’s school district (just kidding, it’s actually called the Seminole County School District) I would probably ask the company to donate the $3 or so that a Happy Meal costs to the Ronald McDonald House Charities. That way you avoid Happy Meals and teach your kids about helping others at the same time.
A general policy lesson to learn from this controversy is that involving private organizations in public education is great, but it works better if you let parents make a choice. That goes for big things like choosing schools or curricula, but it’s also important for little things like rewarding good grades. There’s no reason everyone needs to get the same reward. If you offer a few different options, parents will be just as happy as the kids.