Teachers turn to crowdfunding to avoid out-of-pocket costs

American Falls teacher Hailey Lusk has spent nearly $7,000 on classroom supplies since 2019. The money didn’t come from her district or her own wallet, but from random donors as far away as Wisconsin and California.

Lusk’s funding represents a growing trend among Idaho teachers — the use of online fundraising, or crowdfunding, to get needed supplies without denting their own paychecks.

Hundreds of teachers across the state are using platforms like DonorsChoose, Amazon Wish List, GoFundMe and AdoptAClassroom.org to raise thousands of dollars for their classrooms. Crowdfunding has proven to be successful among teachers — they’re getting supplies quickly, without spending their own money.

But some districts are concerned that they won’t be able to track the funding, and want to prevent teachers from asking for materials the administration might be able to provide. 

Here’s what crowdfunding looks like in Idaho

Lusk, a Spanish and PE teacher at American Falls High School, first started crowdfunding when she heard about DonorsChoose, a teacher-founded nonprofit that connects public school educators to financial donors willing to ease classroom costs. She wanted to avoid the out-of-pocket cost of running a classroom, which can add up to more than $1,000 a year. 

Hailey Lusk used DonorsChoose to purchase elastic bands for students’ desks. The bands help fidgety students relax and release energy.

Since she found the platform three years ago, she’s completed nine projects including buying supplies for a Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration for her Spanish class, and purchasing elastic bands to help students relax and release energy. 

This year, Lusk is looking to raise nearly $700 to purchase yoga mats and blocks for her fitness and emotional health classes. Her mission is to teach her students coping and relaxation techniques to alleviate stress and anxiety.

So far, she’s received just under $500 from four donors and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, a nonprofit dedicated to helping communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. The nonprofit matches every donation to Lusk’s project. 

At least 289 Idaho teachers are waiting on funding for their own DonorsChoose projects, adding up to over $200,000 in supplies, according to the organization.

Each DonorsChoose project includes an itemized list of supplies, chosen by the teacher. The organization purchases and ships all of the supplies once the goal has been fulfilled. If the teachers do not meet their goal within the allotted time, they can renew their project or forward their donations to another project on the site. 

Donors can search projects by topic, teacher, school and location, and can filter results if they’d like to donate exclusively to low-income schools or diverse classrooms.

DonorsChoose is one of the most popular crowdfunding sites because it’s teacher-focused, but it’s not the only option.

Melissa McPherson, a teacher at Middleton’s Purple Sage Elementary, normally spends around $500 a year or more on her classroom. This year, she created an Amazon Wish List to curb costs after seeing other teachers benefit from the platform.

The third-grade teacher’s list included prizes for her students and items she normally would have borrowed from other teachers. She wanted to focus on supplies she could reuse over the years. 

While Wish List is not centered on education, McPherson says it’s more fluid than other platforms. She can add supplies as she thinks of them and receive items as soon as they’re donated and delivered.

Many educators post their Wish Lists on social media with #CleartheList, and donors can search through the hashtag and give what they can. The movement is known as the Clear the List campaign. Companies (including Amazon), nonprofits and celebrities are often among the high-paying donors.

Districts don’t always approve of crowdfunding

McPherson tie-dyes t-shirts with her students every year, a project she says contributes to her classroom environment.

The Middleton School Board passed a rule in 2018 requiring teachers to get their principal’s approval before crowdfunding, according to an Idaho Press article. The policy largely focused on DonorsChoose, which many Middleton teachers used at the time.

But educators weren’t entirely on board. Some worried that the regulations would dissuade teachers from using the platform at all. McPherson said that the district policy was part of the reason she avoided DonorsChoose. 

“The intent of adding such a policy was to ensure the district and school had the opportunity to support teachers’ needs to the best of their ability financially,” said Middleton superintendent Marc Gee, who was not superintendent at the time the policy was enacted. “Even with the best of efforts, there are some items we do not provide, and in those cases teachers are able to pursue crowdfunding and grants.”

Other districts across the country have restricted DonorsChoose, some going as far as banning the platform.

Teachers can also apply for grants, but those tend to be more complicated.

“A lot of times people don’t know how to write the technical grants that are a little bit bigger,” Lusk said. “We don’t know where to find them and … don’t know how to access them.”

While it can take months to apply for a grant, it takes minutes to create a DonorsChoose project or Amazon Wish List. Depending on a teacher’s outreach, the projects can be fulfilled within days. The accelerated process appeals to teachers who oftentimes are already working overtime.

Classroom supplies are essential to supporting learners

There’s no statewide rule stipulating what supplies districts must provide. Local education associations can negotiate school policies to ensure certain items are made available, but those requirements vary from district to district.

Even in districts that do provide basics — desks, pencils, books — teachers like Lusk and McPherson know it takes more to create a positive learning environment.

They say classroom decorations, prizes, alternative seating options and special projects contribute to their students’ success. Many educators also buy basic supplies to have on hand for students whose families aren’t able to purchase everything on a supply list.

Lusk used DonorsChoose to buy books for her Spanish students. Without the donations, she says she would have bought the books herself.

“(American Falls has) a pretty high-needs population,” said Lusk. “Because of that our school is … a refuge for some kids. The more that we can offer for making our school a welcoming place for our students, the stronger the association they will have with education and with wanting to learn and being comfortable.”

Classroom budgets and reimbursement limits rarely cover the costs for these supplies, leaving teachers to pay the rest out of pocket.

Lusk and McPherson agreed that without crowdfunding, they’d spend much more of their own money. As teachers, they’ve learned to be creative and do without certain items, but ultimately their students come first.

“From the bottom of my heart, I’m grateful for these (donors),” Lusk said. “Some of them I don’t even know and yet they would be willing to donate their money and their paychecks to support my efforts for my students in my classroom … the most important thing is just to say thank you.”

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber, a former reporter with Ed News that focused on K-12 policy and politics. She is a College of Idaho graduate, born and raised in the Treasure Valley.

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday