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Funding School Programs Using a Thousand Points of Light

By now, it's a familiar story. An art teacher in a public elementary school, paying for her annual art supplies using a crowdfunding site. Her goal seems pretty modest--$1000--and nearly half of it is already in the can, mostly arriving in $10 and $20 increments. Her principal praises her for "thinking out of the box."

The teacher--Debra Ennis of Ypsilanti, Michigan--is careful to note that her school does provide basic art supplies, but the students can do more creative exploration and special projects with the added materials. She sincerely commends the community for valuing its children and its educators.

A spokeswoman for an adjacent district sniffs that her system pays for the classroom materials teachers require, without having to solicit outside donors--although, she adds, teachers can certainly reach into their own pockets for extras.

While I find the whole issue disheartening, I certainly understand why Ms. Ennis did what she did. In fact, I was Debra Ennis, for about 30 years. The first year I taught instrumental music, my annual band budget was $500. Even in the 1970s, that wasn't enough to purchase a new tuba, let alone outfit a band program with music and instruments and equipment. I spent decades mastering the art of year-round fund-raising, resource trading with other schools and just plain scrounging. I am sure there are band teachers whose schools provide all the financial support they need to run a quality program, but I've never met one.

While seeking outside resources isn't limited to art and music instruction, raising money for school programs is almost always described as a way to get "extras" (often qualified with "for the kids"). My question is: how do we determine what's essential in adequately funding schools--and what is an "extra?" In Ypsilanti, Debra Ennis teaches art to 400 students. Is the $2.50/per child she hopes to raise superfluous--a luxury?

Would it be better if she said: Hey, if this is all the district can give me, I'll scale back my program and projects and restructure my learning goals, to match the available supplies? Resources and materials do matter, across the curriculum. And I can assure Ms. Ennis that once she starts crowdfunding her art program, it will quickly become an annual expectation: she can keep expanding her syllabus and student activities forever, as long as she figures out how to pay for all that joyful creativity.

And that's the dilemma dedicated teachers find themselves in: if I figure out how to get kids what they need, am I setting myself up for a lifetime career of supplementing what the community or state is willing to provide? Sadly, the answer is usually yes.

There can be community-building value in fund-raising for educational needs. The backside of all that generosity, however, is the fact that people want to donate their money in targeted ways, and they want to feel good about their own munificence.  Here's a short list of things people don't want to spend money on: Special education. Textbooks. Teacher salaries and benefits. Fixing the leaky school roof. New, safer tires for buses.

Try hosting a gala, thousand-points-of-light fundraiser to pay for workman's comp insurance or removing a toxic dump from behind the bus garage. And yet--those are the essential, mandated needs that pull money out of the art supplies budget.

Public schools have little control over how much per-pupil funding comes their way--in fact, what they're promised in the planning process frequently turns out to be less. You can't blame an enthusiastic teacher for advocating for their students and hustling some extra cash. But the more teachers rely on self-funding or Donors Choose handouts for curricular materials, the more time they'll spend generating resources instead of planning lessons. And the more control donors will have over what ultimately gets funded. I know this first-hand.

Here's an experience that made me re-think all of the fund-raising I was doing:

My 8th grade bands took an annual, out-of-state trip which was embedded in the curriculum, with band performances and clinics, tickets to hear world-class symphonies, museum visits and musicals. We raised money so that all students were able to go--and those excursions became a core part of building a high-value music education program.

I had a student whose father was a minister in a local big-box church. He stopped in one day to pay, in total, for his son's trip. As he wrote the check, he asked for a receipt. Just write "donation to band program" on the receipt, he said.

But it's not a donation, I replied. You're paying for something tangible. His eyes narrowed. He made a curt remark about the low-intelligence people who work in public schools, and why we will eventually fail, then left, checkbook in hand. So much for faith, hope and charity.

When the Jalen Rose Academy, a charter school in Detroit, used up all its state funding before the end of the school year, Rose held a fund-raiser to finance the last months of school. Big-name sports luminaries donated, to keep their buddy Jalen's school alive.  Charters everywhere get bailed out--or receive bonanza funding from, well, donors who choose.

What happens when nobody wants to pay for public school kids in families without resources?

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