Budget & Finance

School Districts Are Banning Teachers From Using DonorsChoose

By Sarah Schwartz — March 14, 2019 6 min read
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For over a decade, teachers across the country have used the classroom crowdfunding site DonorsChoose to buy instructional materials, take their students on field trips, and stock up on basics like pencils and tissues.

But as teacher-led crowdfunding grows ever more popular, school leaders are starting to voice concerns. Administrators say they have no way of knowing whether the instructional materials and technology flowing into their schools through individual teacher requests are aligned to district standards. They also worry the decentralized process will make it hard to monitor how money is distributed among schools.

As a result, some districts—including, most recently, Metro Nashville Public Schools—have banned their teachers from using DonorsChoose and other sites over the past few years.

Still, many school leaders are hesitant to give up on crowdfunding—and its potential benefits—altogether. These platforms can provide cash-strapped districts a way to supplement school resources without expecting teachers to dip into their own wallets.

And two recent reports argue that banning crowdfunding isn’t the way to go—instead, school and district leaders should create policies around how teachers should do it.

Putting a Stop to Crowdfunding

Eighty-one percent of schools in the U.S. have at least one teacher who has listed a project on DonorsChoose, according to the nonprofit. Annual project funding on the platform has jumped from $1.1 million in 2003 to $159.9 million in 2018, growing year-over-year.

Over the last decade or so, more than 1,100 teachers in the Metro Nashville schools have created projects on the site, funding a total of $1.5 million worth of classroom supplies. But that ostensibly came to a halt in December, when Metro Nashville Public Schools sent an email to teachers warning that the platform was off-limits, the local station News4 reported.

Teachers have slammed the Nashville district’s decision on social media, arguing that they need the crowdfunding website to support underfunded classrooms. The district provides up to $200 annually in reimbursement to teachers for instructional materials and resources that they purchase for their students—but teachers can raise much more than that on DonorsChoose.

“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, wrote in an email to Education Week.

Though the district prohibition on classroom-level crowdfunding came as a surprise to some teachers, it isn’t new. The Metro Nashville board of education’s fundraising policy, last updated in Jan. 2018, states that individual staff members can’t engage in online fundraising in their official capacity as district employees. Schools may use online donation sites to set up building-wide fundraisers, but only if the projects they list receive prior approval. The district’s legal team has said that Metro Nashville schools can’t agree to many of the terms and conditions on crowdfunding sites, said Rutledge.

Taronda Frierson, the director of school audit for the district, told Nashville Public Radio that technology purchased through crowdfunding sites may not meet district information-technology specifications.

Other districts have banned the use of classroom funding websites, too. A survey conducted by the Ohio Auditor’s office found that at least 67 districts in the state don’t allow teachers to use crowdfunding.

And in 2017, The Aegis reported that officials in Harford County Schools, Md., told teachers they couldn’t use DonorsChoose or a similar site, Adopt a Classroom. Barbara Canavan, the Harford superintendent at the time, said that these sites make it difficult for the district to monitor how money flows to individual schools, and there is no way to ensure that the materials teachers purchase are aligned to the district’s curriculum.

In Nashville, Frierson also raised concerns that teachers would use crowdfunded money for personal expenses, rather than their classrooms. “Employees could just be out there fundraising just on their own,” she told Nashville Public Radio. “There’s no way to know they’re not using it for private use.”

That idea outraged many teachers.

Katie Bisbee, the chief marketing officer and executive vice president for partnerships at DonorsChoose, said that it wouldn’t be possible for teachers to pocket money through the platform. Many crowdfunding sites allow a project’s creator to accept cash donations, but DonorsChoose doesn’t work that way, she said.

“We never send cash to teachers,” Bisbee said in an interview. “If a teacher is requesting a class set of dictionaries, we purchase those dictionaries and we send them directly to the school.” In addition, she said, DonorsChoose can provide districts with line-item breakdowns of teachers’ requests.

Support From Administrators

Many districts, though, are supportive of teachers’ independent classroom fundraising—and some even actively encourage the efforts.

Research published last year from Texas State University examined four schools in a Texas district, all of which had relied heavily on DonorsChoose over the course of a decade—each school had raised at least $25,000 through the site from 2006 to 2017.

At those schools, several administrators promoted the platform: One school leader included links to teacher projects that were eligible for matching funds from companies and foundations in a weekly staff newsletter, while two of the four schools offered professional development in crowdfunding.

And now, district leaders’ associations are trying to provide some guidance.

EdSurge Research and Chiefs for Change recently released a report arguing that, instead of banning educators’ use of these platforms altogether, administrators should manage teachers’ projects and create a unifying policy for crowdfunding in the school district. The report explains how different crowdfunding platforms work and offers guidelines for such policies.

And in September of last year, the School Superintendents Association released a crowdfunding toolkit in partnership with DonorsChoose.

The EdSurge report identified some of the biggest challenges that this type of fundraising poses for administrators. Keeping tabs on funding and alignment to standards came up, but so did equity: Is it fair if some students have teachers who fill their classrooms with donated resources, while other students don’t?

In a few districts, the report notes, teachers have used crowdfunding to flout district initiatives. In one example they cite, teachers who opposed the district implementing a new digital curriculum created crowdfunded campaigns for print books.

Some platforms have safeguards that can help offset these kinds of issues.

DonorsChoose, for example, allows administrators to upload IT guidelines to the site, said Bisbee. “If a school district is a Chromebook district, and teachers come to request a tablet with our site, we’ll have a pop up that says, ‘Your district is a Chromebook district and your IT directors request that you request a Chromebook.’”

School and district leaders should familiarize themselves with each platform’s features, the EdSurge report suggests. It includes a platform comparison chart that explains how requests are made, approved, and delivered on seven commonly used crowdfunding sites.

But the report also calls on districts to set their own parameters for teachers using these platforms: Is there a dollar limit for projects? Are there certain categories of supplies that are approved or off-limits? Who owns the materials that teachers receive? What outcomes does the district desire?

“We hope this guide will help districts use crowdfunding in ways that protect donors and school systems and that allow administrators to ensure there is equitable funding across the district,” Mike Magee, the CEO of Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit group for district and state education chiefs, said in a written statement.

Correction: A previous version of this post misnamed the Maryland county where DonorsChoose was banned. It is Harford County.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.