Education

Schools Are So Broke, Now The Money For Supplies Comes From Strangers

by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

June 15, 2017

Public schools in America are supposed to level the educational playing field, but that’s tough to do when they’re not being adequately—or equally—funded. When budget cuts come, teachers and parents are forced to scramble to cover the costs of even basic school supplies.

It’s no wonder then, in the hopes of bridging this financial gap, teachers turn to crowdfunding sites like AdoptAClassroom.org and DonorsChoose.org, where strangers around the globe can donate funds for everything from class sets of books and technology supplies, to sports equipment and field trips that districts can no longer afford to pay for.

DonorsChoose has helped almost 350,000 classrooms raise a collective $5.2 million.

The most popular of these among teachers is the website DonorsChoose.org, established in 2000 by Charles Best, a history teacher in the Bronx, New York who sought to find potential donors for the unmet needs of his students. Since its inception, DonorsChoose has helped almost 350,000 classrooms raise a collective $546 million for projects. In the 2015-2016 school year alone, they raised almost $104 million for nearly 159,000 classrooms across the United States, and 80 percent of their projects helped low income schools.*

Alea McKinley, a high school English teacher in Charleston, North Carolina—an area that has suffered some of the most significant education cuts in the country—has been able to bring visiting playwrights, philosophers, screenwriters, novelists, and poets to her classroom, thanks to the power of crowdfunding. During the past school year McKinley raised $5,777 for projects—paying for both visitors and supplies—through DonorsChoose. “I never could have paid for them on my own,” says McKinley.

On the other side of the United States, Tara Forstner, a high school English teacher in Campbell, California, a town of 40,500, just west of San Jose, has used crowdfunding twice in her classroom. Her most successful campaign solicited funds to buy digital tablets for students due to “new standards that called for 21st century learning skills, which is all about the digital,” says Forstner. 

Forstner teaches in a unique socio-economic region of the state where, she says, “half of my students’ parents are CEOs or work for Silicon Valley tech companies, and the other half are farmworkers or don’t make much money.” As a result, Forstner says she spends anywhere from $300 to $500 of her own money every year for supplies, including items for children whose families can’t afford basics such as pencils, notebooks, and backpacks.

Economic disparities can also affect how likely a teacher is to use crowdfunding. Schools in already low-income areas that may need the funding more may be reluctant to ask for it. “The feeling is that the wealthier districts get the funding and the urban and inner city schools, well asking for it kind of marginalizes the kids in some ways,” says Janet Ferone, an educational consultant who spent 30 years as an administrator in Boston Public Schools.

Schools receive funding from three main sources: state budgets, local sources—primarily property and business taxes—and the federal government. With the advent of the Great Recession in 2008, states slashed education funding, and many didn’t replenish education coffers when the economy rebounded. Cities with lower property values and fewer businesses have lower tax revenue, which means they don’t have much to funnel to local schools. In other places, fear of new taxes leads people to vote down bonds and legislative bills that would raise the money schools need.

The smallest percentage of money comes from the federal government, which chips in funding for programs like Head Start, that assist children who have special needs or come from low-income households. The proposed 2017-2018 federal education budget slashes a staggering $10.6 billion from programs. Each time another chunk of funding is gouged out of educational coffers, students and classrooms suffer, particularly in impoverished areas.

I wish the public would recognize that public education is an investment that can pay remarkable dividends

By making classrooms open to donations from anywhere in the world, Jessica Smock, a New York-based education policy expert, says crowdfunding has the ability to “eliminate the kind of local perpetuation of inequality” that comes from local fundraising efforts in wealthier school districts. “A lot of the times local fundraising tends to perpetuate inequality. I’ve worked in wealthy suburban districts where the parents have a lot of time on their hands to solicit businesses and organize events, so they get more money, whereas needy schools just don’t have that degree of parental involvement,” says Smock.

While crowdfunding may not solve the long-term problem of shrinking public education funds, Ferone expects to see more teachers use it. In Boston where she works, donations through DonorsChoose increased from $40,050 in 2012 to nearly $500,000 in 2016.

For teachers thinking of getting started, Forstner offers a few tips: “Start small. Test the waters and see how it goes. Talk to your parents. It’s important to have those lines of communication open,” she says. “When they know what you’re using supplies or tech for, they’re more apt to donate. You need to tell them, ‘You’re really investing in your child’s future.’”

As for McKinley, she’s thrilled that the option to crowdfund exists, but “I do wish our society valued and funded public education more than it does,” she says. “I wish the public would recognize that public education is an investment that can pay remarkable dividends.”

Image via Flickr User Lou Oms

*This paragraph has been updated to more accurately reflect the monetary impact of DonorsChoose.org.

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