As schools districts across the United States brace for midyear budget cuts, nervous teachers are whispering about the layoffs that could follow. In this bleak economic climate, where one state's proposal calls for eliminating $10.6 billion in education spending, teachers are hesitant to ask administrators for classroom extras or even necessities.
Teachers often reach into their own wallets to bridge the gap.
Ashley Dubin, a high school teacher in the Boston Public Schools estimates she spends at least $400 of her own money every year.
"I easily spend $200 at the start of the year gathering pens, pencils, notebooks, glue, expo markers, you name it," she says.
Although per pupil spending across the country has increased on average over the past 30 years, it has not kept pace with the costs of educating an increasingly diverse school population, which includes children with language learning needs and learning disabilities. In 2001, the federal government enacted the No Child Left Behind law, and according to a study by the Heritage Foundation, the costs of maintaining the subsequent complex system of testing and accountability exacerbated the financial struggle in many school districts.
Former teacher Charles Best started DonorsChoose.org eight years ago as a way to connect "citizen philanthropists" directly with teachers like Dubin who have ideas for enhancing their students' learning experiences, but lack the funds to implement projects. Best saw firsthand how a lack of classroom supplies prevents teachers from providing "thorough, engaging instruction" to their students.
"My principal is super supportive," says Sacramento, Calif., resource teacher Lisa Claussen, "but our money goes to basic classroom supplies." And yet since April of last year, Claussen has managed to add about $3,000 worth of classroom materials for her students with special needs by listing her projects on the DonorsChoose website.
Using a sophisticated but user-friendly search engine, donors today can use the site to support a project based on criteria such as subject or grade level. They can also find pet projects by entering terms such as piano, turtles or even feminist.
With 44% of schools in the United States diverting time away from subjects not included on standardized tests (such as science, social studies, art, music, and physical education), a study from the Center on Education Policy found that private and business donors are stepping in to restore some of the balance by using DonorsChoose.org and other similar sites.
Even the donation of something as simple as a ball can have a huge impact on a child's life. "It helps them integrate socially," says Claussen, whose students often play apart from the general education population.
"If a student brings a new ball out to the playground, other kids are likely to come up to them and want to play."
In all, donors have funded ten of Claussen's requests, including a digital camera, a set of audiobooks, and playground equipment. Without DonorsChoose, Claussen and other teachers across the country would be limited in their options to obtain extra funding.
Vice President of Operations Cesar Bocanegra says he is familiar with critics of DonorsChoose who say the organization is doing the government's job.
"We agree that we should not exist," he says, "however, we're not an organization that works for systemic policy change." Instead, explains Bocanegra, the organization grew organically from Best's desire to help his own school.
Since its inception, DonorsChoose has raised $28 million to supply classroom materials for tens of thousands of projects. It is estimated that 80 percent of the materials supplied by DonorsChoose will be reused by future students.
The site has grown from the original team of Bronx teachers to a national organization with regional offices around the country. Responsible for making the purchases requested by teachers, DonorsChoose also negotiates discounts with suppliers, and sends out the thank-you packets teachers and students complete when a request is fulfilled.
The organization's efficient start-to-finish project management leaves teachers with time to focus on instruction rather than holding car washes and selling raffle tickets, and has earned the site the highest possible rating from Charity Navigator, a charity watchdog.
Although teacher outreach accounts for some of the growth seen since 2000, according to spokesperson Melanie Duppins, "Teachers most often hear about DonorsChoose by word of mouth and we hope they continue to spread the word about our site to their colleagues down the hall in these tough economic times."
Word of mouth is what brought Chicago public school teacher Zoraida Rivera to the site for the first time in November.
When Rivera began planning a research project for her class - "Documenting Family History for Teenage Parents" - she was shocked at the cost of acid-free paper and markers. Money is always tight at the charter school where she works and it wasn't feasible to ask for the $1,032 she would need.
Rivera remembered a colleague who had received a telescope after posting a request on DonorsChoose, so she visited the site and wrote a proposal that included an itemized list of materials and costs, the number of students they would serve, and the amount of instructional hours involved.
According to Rivera, many of the teenage parents she teaches come from "broken" homes.
"The purpose of the scrapbooking project," she says, "is to create a sense of history from now on in their own families."
After posting the project, Rivera emailed 200 of the clients at the restaurant she owns with her husband in Chicago's Paseo Boricua neighborhood where the school is also located. Because her project is eligible for matching gifts from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she only needs $486 more to reach her $1,032 goal.
Whether the buzz is growing about this innovative charity or the public is more aware of how the country's economic crisis will affect schools, DonorsChoose is actually seeing an uptick in giving at a time when most people have less. In 2008, the organization raised over $1 million more than the previous year.
Bocanegra notes that while the number of donations has doubled, individual dollar amounts given have decreased by 50 percent.
As the full impact of the recession is realized, Bocanegra expects more teachers to register projects with DonorsChoose.
"As the word gets out and teachers know we exist, in combination with the economy, we expect that will create a tidal wave of proposals."
The challenge then will be to keep the project fulfillment rate at or above the current 60 percent.
With most states facing huge deficits, even an economic stimulus plan aimed at improving education will most likely do little more than patch large existing holes in states' education budgets. In the meantime "citizen philanthropists" can take matters into their own hands simply by navigating to DonorsChoose.org.
A donor from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in Washington D.C. summed up the power of the site in this message, attached to her gift for a teacher who is requesting dramatic play materials for her second-graders: "I gave to this project because your school is a block from my home and I wanted to give to a school in my area. I see all of these children going to school everyday and I know children are our future. They should have the best!"