Budget & Finance

Teachers Use Crowdsourcing for Education Triage, Not Extras

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 05, 2021 3 min read
Digital image showing figures connected by circles and lines to a large dollar sign in the middle.

More than 1 in 3 teachers now use online crowdfunding to support their classrooms—overwhelmingly for core education supplies. But as the popularity of online funding continues to rise, the disconnect between what teachers need and how donors choose could exacerbate funding inequities in schools.

A new study in the journal Educational Researcher looks at more than 220,000 projects teachers submitted through DonorsChoose, the largest education-related crowdfunding site in the United States, in 2015-16.

More than half of the more than 220,000 projects teachers submitted in 2015-16 focused on math and reading materials, particularly books and supplies, co-authors Sarah Wolff and Deven Carlson found. Schools where a majority of students lived in poverty or that served only Black or Latino students were about 24 percentage points more likely to focus on requests for math and reading materials than schools that were wealthier or served only white students.

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“You suspect, looking at projects, that the main requests are going to be for things like bouncy seats so kids can keep their attention, those types of little extras. They’re not. They’re asking for books and math manipulatives,” said Celine Coggins, the executive director of Grantmakers for Education, which represents education philanthropies but was not associated with the study. “This is problematic. This means schools don’t have what they need.”

Chart shows requests submitted to DonorsChoose, by subject

By and large, the Oklahoma researchers found crowdfunding effective: About 70 percent of requests met their funding goals. (DonorsChoose uses an “all-or-nothing” model, in which it does not pay for any of the project until the full goal is met.)

That aligns with other recent studies finding teachers use crowdfunding sites to make up for shortfalls in their own district budgets. The University of Oklahoma study found teachers were more likely to submit crowdfunding proposals in states with low total per-student spending from federal, state, and local money.

“It really drove home just how unequal things are both across states and within them,” said Carlson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma. “When you have 40 percent of low-income schools submitting a project that asks for basic math and reading materials, you know, maybe we have a funding issue.”

Public favored trips, lectures

However, relying on individual philanthropy left teachers open to public whims.

For example, while the study looked at requests submitted before the start of the pandemic, it did show that technology requests were the least likely to be fulfilled, with only about 65 percent being funded.

Once researchers took the cost of teachers’ projects into account, they found donors were significantly less likely to support math and reading requests than those in science, arts, or extracurricular activities, and they paid for field trips and speakers at disproportionately higher rates than they did for technology or supplies.

Chart shows rates of Funding for DonorsChoose Projects, by Type (Unconditional on Cost)
Chart shows rates of Funding for DonorsChoose Projects, by Type (Conditional on Cost)

Wolff, a research assistant at Oklahoma Human Services, said the sheer volume of math and reading projects may hurt their chances, as DonorsChoose only pays for projects that meet their funding goals. “More distinct projects might have an easier time reaching full funding,” Wolff said. “It might be hard for donors to distinguish in their mind between two similar reading programs at similar schools, but when a school is trying to take their kids on a trip to Washington, D.C., to see the sights or attend a conference, it may stand out in their minds and be something that they’d be really interested in funding.”

DonorsChoose allows funders to search projects by the poverty level of their students, and the study found teachers in high-poverty schools submitted more requests and were fully funded more often than their peers in wealthier schools. However, donors were more likely to support a more expensive request—say, $1,000 of new technology equipment—if it came from a wealthy school, rather than a high-poverty one.

A 2020 analysis by Grantmakers for Education found that as child poverty and homelessness has skyrocketed in the past decade, teachers are also increasingly asking for even more basic supplies. The “warmth, care, and hunger” categories, which include proposals for things like warm clothes and personal hygiene products, have been the fastest-growing category since added in 2016. (The current study did not look at this category of requests.)

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