Education Funding

What crowdfunding is telling us about the future of Chicago education

PHOTO: Bryan Bedder / Getty Images
Charles Best is the founder and CEO of DonorsChoose, a crowdfunding website through which anyone in the world can donate money to any public school teacher in the country.

Cushioned seating, compost bins, standing desks, even a science kit for forensic investigation — these are some of the things Chicago teachers are thinking about providing for their students in the coming school year.

“I have 43 kids on my roster this year,” said Judith Hill, a fifth-grade math and reading teacher at Bass Elementary School in Englewood. “I need to think about how to make the learning environment flexible and fluid.”

Using DonorsChoose.org, a crowdfunding website where teachers can receive donations from anyone in the world, Chicago teachers have been financing not only basic supplies, but more and more, also cutting-edge and innovative projects. In a district still recovering from severe budget cuts, many schools lack fundamental materials and furniture — not to mention the costly tools for sciences and myriad art supplies for primary grades. The site allows teachers to try to fund basic items, bypass requests to their principals, and try out out-of-the-box ideas.

On the site, teachers submit funding proposals that are vetted by DonorsChoose.org. Teachers then have four months for their online appeal to garner donations to meet their goal, and if they make it, DonorsChoose.org will ship the requested materials to the teacher. In return, teachers have their students write handwritten thank-you notes to the donors.

The site was launched in New York in 2000 by Charles Best, then a Bronx public high school teacher who was using his own money to buy much of his classroom supplies. A recent report by the National Bureau of Education Statistics showed that in the 2014-15 school year, public school teachers spent on average $480 annually of their own money on supplies.

The site expanded to Chicago, one of its first cities, in 2004. Now, Best said, Chicago has the most teachers and the most fully funded projects compared with all other cities when adjusted for population. Since it arrived in Chicago, teachers in 500 schools in the district have received over $20 million in donations, half of them coming from out of state.

See how much in donations your school has received since 2005.

From 2005 until now, Chicago teachers’ most common request was for books, a DonorsChoose.org  report released last week shows. That’s in keeping with a report from past years. What’s notable, though, is that teachers have also requested materials for personalized and creative forms of learning, such as art and science supplies, instructional technology, and flexible seating — soft or elastic chairs that teachers say allow students to feel more at ease and to focus better in the classroom.

Chicago Schools have been pushing for those forms of learning. In May, CPS announced an expansion of a partnership with non-profit LEAP Innovations. In the next school year, LEAP will provide personalized learning training to teachers in 35 schools. Teachers receive technology from LEAP, but many still seek additional supplies.

A report from DonorsChoose.org breaks down the types of materials Chicago teachers have been requesting since 2005

Best said that “the most exciting projects on the site is hatching a new way of teaching and not simply covering basic needs.” He hopes school districts one day will fully provide those needs.

Best believes the crowdfunding model drives the innovative projects. “We can tap into classroom teachers’ frontline expertise,” he said, to “unleash better targeted, more creative, more innovative, micro solutions than what someone would have come up with from on high.”

Flexible seating is an example of that. It’s a growing trend on the site, which Best said preceded experts identifying the psychological benefits of the seating.

Judith Hill from Bass said that when she first started using the site five years ago, she saw teachers requesting iPads and laptops. Now she’s noted requests getting more creative.

“It makes me step up my game,” she said.

Most recently, she won $1,000 in a contest created by LEAP and DonorsChoose.org that will provide printers so her students can save physical copies of their digital projects and bluetooth speakers to stimulate her students’ learning through listening.

Of course, appealing to the public to fund classroom projects is not something all teachers want to do. The site favors those with more social media savvy and a wider network of friends and contacts. And while most projects, 73 percent, get fully funded, many teachers might not have the time to post requests and risk not having them funded.

Hill believes, though, that the site “allows you to really be an advocate and not have to be a salesperson,” she said. “Trying to find people to fund those projects is hard. It’s nice to know that you have an outlet to advocate for you while you’re advocating for your students.”

Jose Candia, a third-grade math and science teacher at Lorca Elementary School in Avondale, said the site expedites the process of receiving materials. Candia just won nearly $2,000 also in the contest to procure, among several things, compost bins for the school’s gardening club. This was his first time using DonorsChoose.org, and before that, he used his own money to fund many supplies.

He said the site “lets you get creative and you don’t have to deal with constraints with CPS to have to order certain things with a certain vendor, because there are already all these vendors [on the site] that have been approved.”

Best noted that DonorsChoose.org is working with CPS to streamline the process for teachers to acquire technology hardware. Soon, when teachers request hardware, the site will indicate which hardware is most compatible with district technology.

He added that policymakers can use the open data that DonorsChoose.org has on its site to track the needs of teachers and essentially “take their pulse.”

“There are no gatekeepers standing between teachers and someone who wants to support them,” Best said, and so the requests provide a window into both the needs and inventive ambitions of teachers across the city.

Editor’s note: The article has been updated to reflect that in May, CPS announced an expansion of an existing partnership with LEAP Innovations, not a new partnership.

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.