Some Feel-Good Education Stories Shouldn’t Make Us Feel so Good

Last month, comedian Steven Colbert made news when he announced plans to fund the projects then posted by teachers in South Carolina, his home state, on the crowd-funding site DonorsChoose, an astounding pledge worth $800,000. Another feel-good story came recently about teachers receiving monies, albeit on a less grand scale, via PhilaSoup, a teacher-led microgrant program in Philadelphia.

When education coverage seems to be only a startling array of bad news, these stories are a welcome relief, focusing as they do on a satisfying convergence of donor generosity and teacher ingenuity.

Behind these feel-good anecdotes, however, is the larger, painful story of American educational austerity.  Despite the increasingly healthy economy and the stock market’s robust performance, more than 60% of states have failed to restore education budgets to pre-Recession levels. In fact, many states—the largest source of education funding—are providing far fewer dollars per pupil than they were seven years ago. The budget “crisis” in Philadelphia, where PhilaSoup fills a need, may be more dramatic and complicated than most, but for the city’s teachers, the end result resembles that experienced by teachers in districts across the nation.

Because their schools are underfunded, America’s teachers have had to add fundraising to their long list of professional responsibilities. They can’t do much about some of the greatest damage done by budget cuts, such as smaller support staffs and larger class sizes. But in recent years teachers have stepped in, often despite salary freezes, to pull from their own pockets to pay for classroom materials and supplies, including pencils, paper, books, and other basics, even food for hungry students. In droves, they’ve used the internet to raise money for everything from shelving to iPads; America’s teachers have raised $329 million since 2000 via DonorsChoose alone.

In its coverage of PhilaSoup, Education Week explained that three dozen teachers spent two hours on a Sunday evening competing for four hundred dollars. Assuming each spent another hour preparing his or her pitch and traveling to and from the event, that’s 108 man-hours devoted to the task, valuing those teachers’ time at $3.70 an hour. Let’s consider how that time could have been better spent planning instruction, developing or grading assessments, and communicating with parents or—given that it was the weekend—devoting attention to their families and resting up to be their best selves in the classroom during the coming week.   

Raising money for schools shouldn’t be the job of teachers. It should be the job of our political leaders and government officials who invariably campaign on platforms of improving education. These leaders’ failure to lead—their failure to raise and allocate sufficient revenue to invest adequately in schools, their failure to finance some of their own education reform mandates, their failure to plan for and protect against economic swings, and their failure to establish systems to fund schools equitably—have put teachers in the position of scrambling for resources. Teachers are often remarkably successful at this extracurricular activity, but they shouldn’t have to be.

Colbert’s singular act is heroic; the ongoing work of DonorsChoose and PhilaSoup no less so. As a result of these and similar efforts, students in South Carolina, Philadelphia, and across the country will have access to books, technology, equipment, and supplies that their teachers know they very much need. And PhilaSoup doesn’t just facilitate funding; as Education Week pointed out, it has created a meaningful community of learners among teachers across a vast and fragmented district. If you can afford to support these groups, there’s no reason not to give them a call. But there’s good reason not to stop there. Call the governor’s office next—or maybe, call there first.

Anne Lutz Fernandez became a high school English teacher after a career on Wall Street.  She is the co-author of Schooled: Ordinary, Extraordinary Teaching in an Age of Change.