Mark Noltner, who lives in suburban Chicago, heard about McTeacher's Nights when he found a flier in his daughter's backpack last year.
"There was a picture of Ronald McDonald [on the flier]," he says, and it was promoting the school fundraiser at a local McDonald's.
During McTeacher's Nights, teachers stand behind the counter at McDonald's, serving up food to their students who come in. At the end of the event, the school gets a cut of the night's sales.
Noltner complained to the principal at his daughter's school that he didn't like brand marketing creeping into the school. Some teachers, he says, wore T-shirts with a McDonald's logo to promote the event.
"The McDonald's logo is extremely recognizable to students, so in essence, the [teachers] are becoming walking billboards" for the brand, Noltner says.
Noltner reached out to others in the community who didn't like these events. And what he learned is that a lot of teachers are opposed, too.
So the National Education Association joined forces with a group of state and local teachers unions, as well as the watchdog group Corporate Accountability International. This week, the coalition — which represents more than 3 million teachers — sent a letter to McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook, asking him to end the practice of McTeacher's Nights.
"It is wrong to enlist teachers to sell kids on a brand like McDonald's, whose core products are burgers, fries and soda," the letter states.
McDonald's USA issued a statement defending the fundraising practice. "McTeacher's Nights are all about community, fun and fundraising," the statement reads. It goes on to say that some participating school organizations have told McDonald's that "in addition to the extra financial support these events provide for their schools, they have a great time connecting with their students and neighbors in meaningful ways."
Some of the critics who have signed on to the letter argue that McDonald's benefits from these fundraisers more than the schools.
"It's disrespectful for a multibillion-dollar corporation such as McDonald's to throw pennies at our schools, while it uses our teachers to market its products," says Melinda Dart, vice president of the California Federation of Teachers and president of the Jefferson Elementary Federation of Teachers.
McDonald's USA says that from January 2013 through September 2015, the company-owned restaurants "have paid over $2,525,000 to organizations for donations from McTeacher's Nights." And this figure does not include the amount raised at McTeacher's Nights held at McDonald's franchise locations. (About 90 percent of the McDonald's locations are franchise-owned.)
But critics say McDonald's should take action to end the fundraising practice, since it puts teachers in a compromising position.
"McDonald's is using the bond between student and teacher to create business for themselves, and I see that as exploitation," Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, told The Salt.
We reached out to franchise operators in Ohio and elsewhere seeking their comments on McTeacher's Nights but did not get a response in time for publication.
However, it's clear that McTeacher's Nights have supporters, too. Ahead of an event last year in Newton, Iowa, Jennifer Norvell, a kindergarten teacher at the local Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, told the Newton Daily News that McTeacher's Nights are "a great time for families to come in and interact with the teachers."
But for critics like Sriram Madhusoodanan of Corporate Accountability International, the place where that interaction takes place sends the wrong message to kids. "We think that McTeacher's Night should very soon become a thing of the past," he says.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
McDonald's is taking heat from teachers. The issue is fundraisers for schools that are known as McTeacher's Nights. Dozens of state and local teachers unions say these events benefit McDonald's more than they do schools. NPR's Allison Aubrey has the story.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: About a year ago, Mark Noltner, who lives in the Chicago suburbs, found a flier in his daughter's backpack that was announcing a school fundraiser.
MARK NOLTNER: On the flier was a picture of Ronald McDonald, and it was promoting what's called McTeacher's Night.
AUBREY: At McTeacher's Nights, local McDonald's franchises put teachers behind the counter, serving up food to their students who come in. And schools get a cut of the night's sales. McDonald's says these evenings are all about community and fun and fundraising to benefit the schools. But parents like Mark Noltner don't see it this way. Noltner says, when teachers wear T-shirts with McDonald's logo as a way of promoting the McTeacher's Nights at school, they're becoming walking billboards for the fast-food chain.
NOLTNER: To find out that this marketing was creeping into schools was very frustrating.
AUBREY: After looking into the practice, Noltner complained to the principal at his daughter's school. His take? McTeacher's Nights benefit McDonald's more than they benefits the schools.
NOLTNER: A lot of these McTeacher fundraisers bring in a very miniscule amount of money for the schools. We're usually talking $1 to $2 per student.
AUBREY: In a written statement, a McDonald's spokesperson told us that, since 2013, McDonald's restaurants have paid over $2.5 million to organizations for donations from McTeacher's Nights. And this figure doesn't include the donations from franchise-owned McDonald's around country. But it seems, increasingly, teachers are turned off. This week, dozens of state and local teachers unions, from California, to Ohio, to Vermont, called for an end to McTeacher's Nights. They've joined with a group called Corporate Accountability International. And in a joint letter to McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook, the group says it's wrong to enlist teachers to sell kids on a brand like McDonald's. Here's Sriram Madhusoodanan of Corporate Accountability International.
MADHUSOODANAN: At the end of the day, you know, McDonald's core brand and most profitable items are burgers, fries and soda.
AUBREY: And he says that's not what schools or teachers should be promoting to kids. Melissa Cropper, who's president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, signed onto the letter, too. She says, beyond promoting unhealthy eating habits, McTeacher's Nights put teachers in a bad position.
MELISSA CROPPER: McDonald's is using the bond between a student and a teacher to create business for themselves, and I see that as exploitation.
AUBREY: In a statement, McDonald's says schools have a choice when they seek to do fundraisers. And what the company has heard from schools that have participated is that they have a, quote, "great time connecting with their students and neighbors in meaningful ways." Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.