Second grade teacher Samantha Ramos' morning work for her students covers essential lessons, but the English language development teacher at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, knew something was missing.
Supplies like marble runs and interlocking plastic building discs would help students think creatively and learn how to problem-solve and work in teams. Materials for small group instruction in phonics, such as dice games and flip books, could provide hands-on learning fun, especially as she attempts to strengthen foundational reading skills following COVID-19 school closures and disruptions.
After calculating the cost of all these materials at $838.85, Ramos submitted a proposal in March through DonorsChoose, a popular online fundraising platform for individual educators' classroom materials and projects.
Two days later, her request was fully funded by one donor — the Arizona Department of Education. A few weeks later, the materials arrived at her school.
"My hope is that all teachers are aware of this amazing tool that is literally at the tip of their fingers," Ramos said in an email. "As a teacher with students who are growing in both size and knowledge," she is in constant need of different materials, Ramos said.
Arizona's direct donations to teachers like Ramos are being replicated in a handful of other states that are also partnering with DonorsChoose to send federal pandemic relief funding and state money to directly support individual teachers' requests for materials.
According to DonorsChoose, state education agencies in Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Nevada, Oklahoma and Utah have together contributed more than $42 million since the beginning of the pandemic to fund teacher-submitted projects in their states.
"Educators are the experts on the needs of their individual classrooms — they are best positioned to make decisions about what investments would support their students in recovering from the impact of interrupted learning, and all-too-often they are not consulted in decisions about how to direct funds," said Jhone Ebert, Nevada state superintendent of public instruction, in an email.
State set-asides launched
Since its launch in 2000, the nonprofit DonorsChoose has helped raise $1.3 billion for 727,550 teachers and their students, according to the organization's website.
Teachers seeking funding write an essay describing the learning outcomes for their materials and itemize the price of each desired item. Once those requests are vetted by DonorsChoose, they go live on the charity's website where the public can contribute to the projects.
Half of the funds raised come from individuals giving an average of $50. The other half has historically come from foundations and companies, said Ali Rosen, DonorsChoose vice president for business development. The average cost of a teacher's project is $550, and about 80% of teachers' projects are funded, Rosen said.
A majority of successfully funded projects hit their fundraising goal in about a month. If the project is fully funded, DonorsChoose purchases the materials and sends them to the teacher's school.
The partnerships between DonorsChoose and state education agencies — the first of their kind — emerged during the pandemic as states received federal COVID-19 emergency money known as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund. A total of $189 billion has been distributed to schools through ESSER for spending through September 2024, or longer if extensions are granted.
States and districts have flexibility to use the money as they wish, but spending must be in response to the pandemic's impact on schools.
For the partnerships between DonorsChoose and state education agencies, states are subgranting a set amount of funds to DonorsChoose and then allocating a dollar amount per teacher project.
Nevada, for example, set aside $8 million in ESSER money to fund 10,000 teacher-requested projects on a first-come, first-served basis at up to $800 per teacher, according to Ebert. DonorsChoose invested an additional $1.54 million for project costs and fees into the state effort, allowing more than 11,000 educators in the state to have their projects fully funded, Ebert said.
The program for Nevada educators launched Sept. 29, 2021, and it reached capacity by Dec. 13, 2021.
In addition to teachers receiving their desired materials, Ebert said, a benefit of the program was that DonorsChoose handled the management of requests, donations and distributions.
"The funding or project fulfillment did not have to be managed through our team at the Nevada Department of Education, which is already spread thin," Ebert said.
Connecting directly with teachers, students
Utah also invested ESSER funding toward teacher projects via DonorsChoose. There, the state set aside $12 million in ESSER funds for teachers' projects. The partnership launched Jan. 18 and has funded 13,000 teacher projects on a first-come, first-served basis so far, said Utah Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson, in an email.
Teachers can apply for up to $1,000 in funding. The money must be used to purchase instructional materials and resources to support student learning needs in response to COVID-19, Dickson said.
"The partnership has been an efficient, effective, and transparent way to help our educators during the pandemic," said Dickson.
Rosen said stories are plentiful of creative teacher projects funded in this way. In Delaware, an English language instructor requested and received $1,000 worth of books to deliver to neighborhoods where her students live. Students could borrow two books each. The next week, when the teacher returned, they could exchange those books for two more.
Two teachers in Honolulu teamed up to request $2,212 to give their middle schoolers the opportunity to grow a school garden.
"I think what the states that have worked with us, what they loved about this and what we have really found value in as well, is that it gives teachers a chance to directly have a say into what resources they need for their classroom," Rosen said. "And for our state leaders, it gives them a way to directly connect with the students and teachers who they want to serve."
As ESSER funding becomes depleted or otherwise committed to other initiatives, it is unsure how long these partnerships will last or if they can continue with funding. Nevada's Ebert said her state has no plans to continue the program next school year.
Rosen said research has found DonorsChoose teacher projects have benefits beyond classroom learning. A November 2021 study from the University of Michigan found evidence that "technology platforms such as education crowdfunding could effectively reduce teacher turnover."
The study said these platforms can alleviate two key areas blamed for teacher turnover — inadequate working environments and lack of teacher autonomy.
For Ramos, the Arizona teacher, requesting funds for STEM and phonics classroom materials was easy and rewarding.
"It amazes me how many people are out there that are willing to give to your classroom," said Ramos. "They just needed to be made aware and given the chance to help you make a difference.
Correction: This article previously used an incorrect pronoun to identify Jhone Ebert. We have updated the story.