Teachers often have to crowdfund for classroom supplies. Some districts are banning the practice.

As public school budgets get tighter and teacher pay stagnates, a growing number of teachers are turning to crowdfunding sites to pay for everything from classroom supplies to field trips. More than 80 percent of schools across the country have at least one teacher that has used DonorsChoose, a popular crowdfunding site designed for teachers, according to the nonprofit’s own statistics.

The estimated average annual salary for K-12 teachers was just over $58,000 during the 2016-17 school year, according to data from the National Education Association. Ninety-four percent of teachers have used their own money to buy school supplies, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics released last May. Thirty-six percent of the teachers polled spent between $251 and $500 each year, and educators in low-income schools reported spending more. It’s no surprise that teachers are turning to crowdfunding sites to fill the gap.

But some districts have reportedly begun prohibiting teachers from using crowdfunding sites for classroom expenses — which, in many cases, could force teachers to go back to spending their own money on necessary supplies.

Nashville’s crowdfunding ban

Nashville’s public school system recently made headlines for banning crowdfunding sites like DonorsChoose. But as Education Week noted, the district’s ban on crowdfunding services isn’t new: The Metro Nashville board of education’s fundraising policy, which was last updated in January 2018, bans individual staff members from using online fundraising platforms. Schools are allowed to use crowdfunding sites for school-wide fundraisers, but the district has to approve the projects.

The school board has several objections to teachers’ use of crowdfunding sites, the Education Week report shows. “The state Comptroller has indicated that such sites are problematic for school districts because of lack of adequate controls,” K. Dawn Rutledge, the district’s communication officer, told Education Week via email. In other words, administrators appear to be concerned that teachers can order products that don’t meet district standards — and that teachers can claim to be raising money for classroom supplies but instead keep it for themselves.

But DonorsChoose says its platform is designed to assuage all of these concerns — unlike other crowdfunding websites. “When a teacher comes on our site, they must be [accredited] with a school,” Chris Pearsall, the vice president of brand and communications at Donors Choose told me. Teachers write an essay explaining what supplies they need, “and then they actually go shopping on our site to select the products they want for their classroom.” Before the project is posted to the public, it gets vetted by a screener.

“When the project is funded, we purchase the materials the teachers requested and ship them directly to the classroom,” Pearsall added. “There’s no transfer of cash to those teachers, and we notify the school that those products are on their way.” Once the donated items arrive, teachers have to send in photos of the students using them, and the students are asked to write letters thanking their donors for funding the project.

For cash-strapped teachers, crowdfunding sites are an unfortunate necessity

Erin Hart-Parke, a high school English teacher in Pinellas County, Florida, told me the way DonorsChoose is set up should put administrators at ease. “It’s not like [the items are] going to the teacher’s house or [the money] is ever in the teacher’s bank account,” she said. “Originally when [my district] found out about DonorsChoose, a lot of administrators were saying, ‘Don’t use that, because we don’t know where the money is coming from.’ Now you can use DonorsChoose, but you have to get the project approved by the administration first and fill out some paperwork with the bookkeeper.”

Hart-Parke said she’s used DonorsChoose to buy a document camera and several sets of books for her classes, including Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. “[Skloot] had been going on DonorsChoose and seeing if anybody was asking for her book. She donated to the project and posted the link on Twitter and Facebook and got a bunch of people to fulfill the rest of the project,” Hart-Parke said. “When I went to go teach the book, I could tell the kids, ‘The author helped get you this book,’ and it helped them be interested in it and feel like somebody cared about whether they read a book, other than me.”

Kara Saunders, a math teacher in the Bronx, New York, has used DonorsChoose to buy a number of items for her class. Her most recent fundraiser was for a set of movement stools, which cost just over $320.

“My classroom has about 30 chairs and desks that all look and feel the same,” she wrote on the description page for her project. “Every day one hundred different students walk in to my classroom with one hundred different learning styles. If they do not look and learn the same way, why should I expect them to sit the same way?” The stools, she said, would provide extra accommodations for students who need help staying focused throughout the class period.

“I use DonorsChoose for things that are extra — things that I wouldn’t get funding for through the school, or things that are kind of expensive,” she told me. “I work in a Title 1 school in [one of] the poorest congressional districts in the United States, so we have funding, but a lot of times it’s just for the basics.”

Crowdfunding platforms are a stopgap solution to a systemic problem

For teachers like Hart-Parke and Saunders, DonorsChoose is a way of giving students access to the materials they need — or, in some cases, to supplementary materials that enrich their learning experiences — without having to pay for those things out of pocket or asking parents to do so. In other words, it’s a way of bridging the gap between those schools where parents and teachers can afford to buy anything that isn’t covered by the school’s budget and those where that’s not an option.

Despite these rosy stories, the fact that DonorsChoose exists at all points to a larger problem: A lack of adequate funding for public schools and, as a result, a system in which teachers and parents are forced to pay for classroom supplies themselves. As Nadra Nittle previously wrote for The Goods, teachers’ dependence on crowdfunding sites like DonorsChoose shows that education — and students — continue to be shortchanged.

According to Pearsall, the reports that districts are banning DonorsChoose aren’t fully accurate. “There are a handful of school districts seeking to ban crowdfunding, but the truth is that some of them carve out exceptions for DonorsChoose,” he said.

For now, DonorsChoose appears to be a stopgap solution to a systemic problem. “I think DonorsChoose is great for filling in the gaps,” Hart-Parke said. “I wish we had the funding, and I wish I could go to the bookkeeper and say, ‘Hey, I need a document camera, can you go buy me one?’ But we don’t live in that kind of era.”

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