Want to Keep School Funding Alive? Put An End to DonorsChoose

Writing this article seems tantamount to betrayal. I feel like I’m biting the hand that has fed me and my students in lean times, but it is unbecoming to spare the truth. For all the amazing things that DonorsChoose has provided for students and classrooms across our nation, a pattern has developed that undermines the endeavor of public education, and calls into question the mission of this fundamentally well-intentioned organization. Simply put, by providing an alternative way to fund the resources that schools need to pursue their educational needs, DonorsChoose is slowly allowing schools to pull back from the responsible allocation of their resources and management of funds.

For the unfamiliar, the concept behind this is called a moral hazard. By assuming responsibility for funding anything from markers to microscopes, the DonorsChoose model poses a risk that the schools (and localities) will not need to be as responsible for providing those tools and experiences themselves, one of their essential roles. In theory, DonorsChoose (like other crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo) work on the margins, providing benefit to the schools without making up so large a slice of the pie that schools would alter their behavior. However, with rising deficits and public spending under a microscope, there is a larger incentive to pass off responsibility to DonorsChoose than ever before.

In practical terms, when this shift occurs it often places the burden of providing essential resources onto teachers. Unless they fund these projects out of pocket, teachers are left to nickel-and-diming students, the time-intensive crapshoot of grant writing, or increasingly to the likes of DonorsChoose. Worse yet, many who possess neither the personal funds nor the technical know-how must opt to go without.

To be clear about essential resources, I can testify that I and many colleagues have had to turn to DonorsChoose for furniture, printer paper, toner, calculators for math classes, safety equipment for science labs, novels for English classes, and computers for technology-starved classrooms. Often, due to non-existent transportation funding, schools have had to rely on teachers organizing DonorsChoose proposals to go to learning opportunities even when the on-site cost is free.

Sadly, though the needs of students are occasionally being met, this is a reactive, piecemeal approach that can’t ever hope to fully address the needs of students, especially those in traditionally under-resourced schools. When successful, it also has the pernicious effect of convincing those controlling the purse-strings that traditional funding is unnecessary, leading to budget outlays that don’t allocate for buses, or paper, or computers on the tentative promise that Doreen from Atlanta, or James from Brooklyn will pay for it instead. In turn, public funds get wrapped up elsewhere — in compensation, in discretionary funding, or fed back into the gaping maw of state debt.

Ultimately, the kind of crowdfunding exemplified by DonorsChoose poses a complicated problem, one that must be met with reform while the fixing the moral hazard is still tractable. To be fair, there are many wonderful proposals out there that deserve funding, including not only those that address fundamental needs, but also those that provide enrichment and differentiation. However, the central problem is the heart of the mission of DonorsChoose.org. If it truly “envision[s] a nation where children in every community have the tools and experiences needed for an excellent education,” it must find a way to address this problem by changing its business model, lobbying for changes in public policy, or scaling back until a solution can be found.