As District Budgets Shrink, Teachers Turn To Crowdfunding Websites

Sep 6, 2016

Tight school budgets mean teachers might not have enough money to supply their own classrooms. So some spend their own money and hit the discount stores. Increasingly, these days, teachers are also turning to crowdfunding websites to buy things as simple as markers and construction paper.

A charity that former Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl runs is the latest group to lend teachers a hand.

The announcement could be welcome news for a Milwaukee Public Schools teacher who was stocking her classroom when WUWM paid a visit.

Monica Lopez teaches kindergarten at MPS’ Clement Avenue Elementary School. She has packed her classroom with colorful toys and books, and other things to occupy her little kiddos.

“I find lots of books, a wooden tractor - I’m always trying to find wooden instead of plastic,” Lopez describes, as she wades through boxes in her classroom. “And baskets, lots of baskets…”

Lopez knows firsthand how challenging it can be to outfit a classroom on a tight budget.

Her school doesn’t provide teachers with an individual classroom budget – so they are on their own.

“I end up going to the dollar store, and Goodwill, rummage sales – [I] get a lot of stuff at rummage sales,” Lopez says, ticking names off on her fingers. “There’s the Target teacher section they’ve just added. It’s like $5 or under, it’s really popular.”

Then there are sometimes students who need supplies. Lopez says most of her families are able to pay the $6 fee at the start of the year, or bring their own supplies.

But that’s not the case everywhere.

“I know a lot of classrooms in our district, the families can’t afford the supplies. So it’s the teacher spending money for 30 students, on all of those glue sticks and crayons and pencils,” she says. 

“I’ve started keeping track,” Lopez adds. “The receipts that I have kept have been between $600 and $1000 a year that I spend on the classroom. It’s probably a little bit more, because I’ve lost some receipts, and when I’m in the grocery store buying food for myself, I’ll get Clorox wipes for the classroom, or I know we need extra graham crackers.”

Lopez, like many of her colleagues, is starting to rely on DonorsChoose.org.

It’s a crowdfunding website many local educators use to solicit funds for classroom necessities, and special projects. Anyone, anywhere can donate.

“The beginning of the year and around Christmas time are usually big,” Lopez explains. “This time of year, there’s a lot of organizations that help fund different, like, playground equipment, a classroom pet. I got a listening station, headphones and a cd player, one year. So it’s helped a lot.”

The latest group to help through Donors Choose is a charity affiliated with former Sen. Herb Kohl.

He announced this week that he will fund every live request from Wisconsin teachers – nearly 700 projects from 140 school districts around the state. 

The money will help pay for materials from health and hygiene products, to paper, pencils, books and musical instruments. 

It's a bill that adds up to $500,000. 

"As the new school year kicks off, we are thrilled to support all of the classroom projects currently posted by teachers right here in Wisconsin," Kohl said in a statement. "We owe a lot to our teachers and hold enormous hope for our students."

Several teachers and school districts took to social media to express their gratitude: 

And as Lopez says, the Kohl Foundation isn’t the first nonprofit to take notice of teachers’ reliance on Donors Choose. Just last year, the Burke Foundation pledged more than $40,000 to support funding requests from MPS teachers.

Clement Avenue’s Monica Lopez says she’s grateful for the help, but she hopes one day, she won’t have to ask.

“I’ve done it before, and I think it’s great that others want to help donate to classrooms,” she says. “But now we’re turning more and more to those things, not just to supplement but to help supply things we need in our classrooms on a regular basis.”

“It’s not the icing on the cake anymore when you go to those donors to help.”