Donors and Choices
The atmosphere at Winnetka Elementary School on the morning of December 11th was charged with a special energy. Anticipation, confusion, and excitement filled the auditorium as hundreds of children, along with their teachers, filed in for what they thought was simply an oddly-timed pep rally. Some had started to see the trickle of social media posts, however, and knew something else was up.
In fact, that morning, teachers in twenty cities throughout Dallas County were arriving to work and receiving a big holiday surprise. A “DFW Mystery Friend” had donated nearly $630,000 to fulfill the wish lists of close to 1000 teachers working in public schools across North Texas.
Our “Mystery Friend” was able to align their gift with the needs of each individual instructor because of the service provided by DonorsChoose.org. DonorsChoose is a national nonprofit that allows teachers to request specific items for their classroom and provides potential donors an opportunity to send those materials directly to the campuses where they’re needed.
As the news cameras rolled at Winnetka, some big ticket items were prominently featured: A Chromebook. A Canon Rebel camera. An aquarium, with a turtle to live in it on its way. Less noticable, however, were the many classroom necessities that made up a large portion of the teachers’ requests: Books. Writing utensils. A new carpet.
As it turns out, DonorsChoose founder Charles Best, who flew down to be on hand for the event, estimates that “about half of the projects on our site request basic materials,” rather than the “enrichment” items we wouldn’t expect school districts to underwrite.
Best, former history and English teacher at a high school in the Bronx, has firsthand knowledge of the lack of resources available in too many of our public schools: “My colleagues and I would often go into our own pockets to purchase school supplies for our students. Sometimes, we'd talk in the teachers lunchroom about resources we wanted our students to have. The growth of DonorsChoose.org underscores that millions of kids--especially in low-income communities--do not have all the materials they need for a great education.”
Best utilized technology to innovate an immediate solution to the problems faced by his students and fellow teachers. But as he alluded to, the growing popularity, and indeed, very existence, of DonorsChoose points toward a larger systemic issue that private philanthropy alone cannot fully address.
“60% percent of our donors said that they were more interested in systemic education reform after giving on our site,” Best continued. “Far from letting government off the hook, we think DonorsChoose.org is casting sunlight on inequities in our public school system, in a uniquely vivid way. By engaging the public in our public schools, we contribute to the number of people who are fired up about improving the system itself.”
Teachers should not have to go into their own pockets, or cultivate a network of wealthy patrons, to be able to provide the kids in their care with the classroom materials they need to learn and thrive. Private giving has a role to play in optional technology and field trips. But as investors and stakeholders in public education, we should ensure our public dollars can cover the basics.
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