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DonorsChoose: It's Not Just For Teachers Anymore

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A popular crowdfunding site for schools is entering formal partnerships with a handful of school districts, hoping to make what's generally been a diffuse, teacher-by-teacher effort into something districts can support in a more coordinated manner.

DonorsChoose's new partnerships, to be announced this morning, would also seem to be an attempt by the nonprofit to further distinguish itself from other providers in the crowd—pun intended—and a response to a recent trend of districts putting the kibosh on teachers' crowdsourcing efforts.

"There have been any number of district leaders who are either confused or concerned about their teachers' use of crowdfunding sites generally," said Charles Best, a former New York City teacher who started the organization in 2000. "And I think there are a lot of superintendents who don't have the time to learn the ins and outs of crowdfunding and what makes ours different from others."

To kick off the effort, DonorsChoose will work with 10 districts, ranging from large urban districts, including Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Chicago, down to the small, rural, 350-student Richland R1 district in southeast Missouri. It also plans to match up to $250,000 in donations across those districts for teachers' proposed projects. Each district will get to host a page on DonorsChoose.org. on which it can list teachers' ideas and access tools for analyzing their requests.

The organization wants to triple that number of partnerships by January and potentially expand it to hundreds in 2020.

A Brief History of School Crowdfunding 

Crowdfunding at schools has been on the increase at least since the penny-pinching days of the Great Recession. But while the idea is simple in concept, it's trickier on the ground.

For one thing, the major providers have some significant differences, some of which can spell trouble for districts and teachers wanting to use them. Some are for-profits, others nonprofits; some take a cut of funds raised, others don't. Some allow users to ask directly for money, for example, others place safeguards around the purchases. (It is probably not a good look, however well intended, for a teacher representing a school to have cash directly deposited into his or her bank account.)

For its part, DonorsChoose vets the projects teachers submit, and teachers must ask for goods or services, rather than money. Once funded, the materials are sent directly to schools.

Even then, some administrators worry about crowdfunding exacerbating disparities—that certain schools will stand to benefit more than others, depending on which teachers are more or less savvy or aggressive users of crowdfunding sites. (It's well known that fundraising done by parent-teacher organizations can exacerbate per-pupil spending disparities even among neighboring districts.)

 And as my colleague Sarah Schwartz recently reported, some districts have moved to outlaw teacher crowdfunding for other reasons, citing concerns that educators are selecting materials not well aligned to their district's goals or curriculum, and even that teachers might use the sites for personal gain. 

This all has left a patchwork of policies. The Tacoma district in Washington state, for example, prohibits the use of cash crowdsourcing sites for district fundraising, but leaves open the possibility that the district could, as part of its overall fundraising, work with third-party promoters.

Fewer than 10 percent of school districts prohibit crowdfunding or put in so much red tape as to make it all but impossible, Best estimated. But generally, he said, districts tend to be passive rather than active supporters of teacher crowdsourcing.

A Centralizing Force

DonorsChoose's district partnerships appear to be the nonprofit's attempt to respond to some districts' objections and concerns while not losing the teacher-led nature of school crowdsourcing.

Each of the partnership districts will have its own landing page on DonorsChoose.org, where it will be able to put teachers' proposed projects in one place. Then they'll be able to monitor what's been donated. Principals will be notified each time a project is funded so they'll be able to be on the lookout for materials that are shipped to their school, while administrators will receive early notification when donors or philanthropies list new opportunities. 

The district landing pages won't be "gift registries" where teachers can only request pre-approved items; they'll still get to be creative and flexible with what they want to fund. The one exception is for IT purchases. Most districts have the ability to support only certain hardware and devices; those specifications will pop up when teachers ask for those devices.

Districts will also get more granular data that could presumably help shape their budgeting. If teachers are requesting the same set of books for their classroom libraries, for instance, then that's something the district might want to put in a line-item in the future.

That's one of the tools that excites Susan Enfield, the superintendent in the Highline district south of Seattle, one of the 10 districts partnering up. (Enfield also sits on the board of trustees for the nonprofit that publishes Education Week.)

"It's one thing for a teacher to be looking for something for a cool project he or she is doing," she said. "But if I'm seeing a certain thing being asked for over and over, that might not just be a request or preference. It might be a legitimate, more widely spread teacher need."


Read our new special report on what superintendents and principals actually do with K-12 funds—and their biggest challenges and concerns.


So what might these partnerships look like on the ground? The Richland R1 district in Essex, Mo., has worked with DonorsChoose since 2014. It's used a centralized district page to support teachers' needs rather than scattershot one-off requests. And because of its small size, the district has been able to get devices for its 1-to-1 computing program, green screens, 3-D printers, and drones through crowdfunding, said Superintendent Frank Killian. 

"Our district has our own DonorsChoose page, instead of each teacher trying to create their own," he said. "We end up making our dollars go twice as far." 

It remains to be seen how these arrangements play out in much larger urban districts, with hundreds of schools and different economies of scale. Some of the first partnerships offer intriguing models, though. In Oklahoma City, a local philanthropy, the Foundation for Oklahoma City Schools, provides matching dollars for teachers' projects and commits $250 for each teacher's first funded project of the year, said Mary Mélon, the foundation's president.

All of that good work notwithstanding, there's a more philosophical question about the crowdsourcing trend: How does it affect school financing in general? Are districts implicitly sending the message that they can simply fundraise to make ends meet—and, by implication, that they don't need property tax increase or other revenue-raising methods? It's a question few school finance experts appear to have studied as yet.

Best says that's not a major concern of his for now. Internal surveys of its donors suggest that they tend to be more interested in issues of school district management, rather than less, after their first time funding a project in a low-income classroom.

"Project funding is too unpredictable, and discretionary spending by districts too constrained, for a district to say, 'Let's not fund this line item in the budget'" as a response to crowdfunding, he said.

Image credit: Getty

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