COLUMBIA (AP) — When Alexander Tai taught math in Georgia public schools, he had to pay for his own copy paper.
The school district provided a copier for its teachers, but Tai and his colleagues were left to scramble for coupons if they wanted to print worksheets or study guides for their students.
After relocating from his native Atlanta to Columbia, Tai swapped multiplication tables for books and is now an English language educator at Fairview Elementary School. Tai serves third-, fourth- and fifth-graders for whom English is a second language.
As a teacher in Columbia Public Schools, Tai no longer has to rely on Office Depot sales for his copy paper. He does, however, frequently pay out of pocket for basic school supplies like scissors and construction paper. Tai said he has spent about $450 of his own money so far this school year, and he estimates his total will hover around $700 by the time summer break rolls around.
Similarly, Derby Ridge third-grade teacher Amy Jones frequently purchases her own school supplies. Between pens, staplers, tape, folders and books for her students, she spends about $200 out of pocket each school year, the Columbia Missourian reported.
The problem of classroom funding is widespread. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, 94 percent of public school teachers surveyed in 2014 said they have spent money out of their own pockets on school supplies without reimbursement. The average amount of money teachers spent that school year was $479. This trend is reflected in the Columbia Public School District, though the figures vary slightly, according to a more recent survey of teachers.
Kathy Steinhoff, president of the Columbia Missouri National Education Association and a ninth- and 10th-grade math teacher at Hickman High School, said 82 percent of district teachers who responded to the survey reported spending their own money on classroom staples like pencils and Kleenex in the 2017-18 school year.
Although Missouri teachers are eligible for up to $250 in federal reimbursements each year, this figure could climb to $750 under two bills in the state Legislature. House Bill 299 and House Bill 364 each propose increased tax reimbursements up to $500. In the meantime, however, teachers continue to turn to other avenues to fund more creative projects or specific classroom needs.
One of the most prominent ways in which teachers are funding their classrooms is through a crowdfunding site called DonorsChoose. The online platform is designed for teachers and requires that participants create a profile and verify their position using a school email.
After teachers are verified by the site, they can begin requesting supplies through associated vendors like Amazon Business. They then create a one-page proposal outlining the purpose of the supplies they are requesting and the scope of the project. This includes a description of the student demographic that will be using the supplies, how many students will be affected by the project and any research relating to the efficacy of the requested supplies.
Curious donors can then search completed project postings and make donations anonymously, using only a first name or in the name of a PTO or PTA group.
Kaley Keith, a first-grade teacher at Fairview, said she has successfully funded about 10 classroom projects using DonorsChoose. Keith turns to crowdfunding to find other ways — such as math games, Play-Doh stamps and database subscriptions — to “make learning more interesting” in her first-graders’ world.
“We can stick with what the district has bought us, but it’s so much more interesting and so much more fun,” Keith said. “They’re engaged and interacting with the material if it’s interesting to them.”
This desire to go beyond a basic curriculum drives Columbia teachers to crowdfunding, Steinhoff said.
“We have some really innovative teachers, and sometimes their innovation is not run-of-the-mill standard supplies,” Steinhoff said. “It may be that their innovation requires a big ask initially, but that ask might be something that has long-term benefit.”
This is how Tai views his first crowdfunding venture. His debut DonorsChoose project resulted in new flexible seating options for his students. His classroom is now adorned with “wobbly chairs,” two kinds of stools, and floor desks that augment the classic, one-size-fits-all desk chairs. Not only do the seating options make students physically comfortable, but they also encourage them to be comfortable speaking in class and learning in a more approachable setting, Tai said.
“The kids are so much happier and so much more open about coming in and learning, because you’re giving them opportunities to choose,” Tai said. “Students today don’t have an opportunity to choose what they want to learn, but at least we’re giving them a choice to sit where they want.”
Students in Tai’s classes are also exploring their budding English skills thanks to the new seating options.
“They’re actually using their language to express that they want to sit in these chairs,” he said.
Tai outlined these anecdotes and effects of the flexible seating options in his “impact letter” to donors. This is another tenet of the DonorsChoose process: After a project has been fully funded and the supplies have been delivered, teachers and their students write thank-you notes to donors. Teachers then upload photos of the supplies and write an impact letter that explains how their classrooms have changed thanks to the new supplies.
Teachers like Tai and Keith have used crowdfunding sites to enrich their lesson plans and physical classrooms, and they said they already have ideas for their next DonorsChoose endeavors. These ideas, however, could be susceptible to district policies.
Columbia Public Schools is working to implement a new procedure in which school leadership has more oversight in regards to crowdfunding efforts by teachers, Steinhoff said. This procedure is still “in flux,” she said, but will likely limit the number of DonorsChoose projects teachers request and require increased administrative approval, all while working to give teachers more of what they need through district funds.