In Colorado, which has an extremely healthy economy but ranks 42nd in educational funding per pupil, teachers such as Stuart Sanks are increasingly turning to online crowdsourcing and benefit events to subsidize school supplies or extracurricular activities for students, many of whom are returning to classrooms this week. And that's not to mention how often teachers are reaching into their own pockets to make sure the kids they teach are getting the scholastic opportunities they deserve, whether they're part of a comparatively wealthy demographic or not.
"It would be interesting if at the doctor's office, I went in and couldn't afford to pay for an X-ray, and the doctor said, 'I'll just pay for it,'" notes Sanks, who teaches third grade at The Studio School, an Adams 12 institution in Northglenn. "That doesn't happen. And it doesn't happen at construction sites — like a worker saying, 'Oh, we're out of nails, I'd better go buy some.' But at the teacher's level, it's become so acceptable that it's not even a shock to people."
Student advocates across the country have raised objections to a 13.5 percent cut in funding for the Department of Education announced in President Donald Trump's proposed budget earlier this year. But while such slashes, if they pass as proposed, certainly won't help underfunded public schools, the lion's share of the dollars that keep these facilities running come from individual states. And because such resources are so limited in Colorado, more and more teachers in lower- and even middle-class areas are trying to make up shortfalls by using websites such as GoFundMe, where K-12 teachers from the state reportedly raised more than $855,000 last year.
Still, Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, doesn't see such methods as a workable long-term solution to the funding problem.
"It's not a surprise that public-school teachers have turned to crowdsourcing as a way to supplement the resources in their classrooms, especially given the now-multi-decade underfunding of our public schools in Colorado," Dallman says. "The reality is, districts have been forced to make difficult decisions, including whether or not to cut teachers or to significantly cut resources available to teachers and students. Oftentimes it's a balancing act, and it can leave teachers and students without the resources students need to learn in the 21st century."
This challenge becomes even greater in less affluent areas, Dallman points out. In her view, teacher online fundraising "can create additional inequity for our students, particularly because, generally speaking, those teachers who are crowdsourcing in more metro-area regions have the ability to raise more significant amounts of money than if they were in, say, Yuma or Cortez or Montezuma County."
There are large disparities in terms of fundraising prospects within urban areas, too, as Sanks knows from personal experience. The Studio School has what he describes as "a huge variety in our population, with about 40 percent free and reduced lunch" — a measure that reflects a school's demographics, since it's based on federal poverty guidelines. "I've been at schools with 90 and 95 percent free and reduced lunch, and asking parents there to do something in addition to what they're already doing — well, for some of them, it's just not possible. At my previous school, we had a hard time getting parents to come to parent-teacher conferences or special events in the evening because they were working two jobs just to make ends meet. And they don't have anything extra they can give."
For this reason, Sanks has eschewed GoFundMe in favor of Donors Choose, "a website where teachers and anybody who works with children — para-educators, people who might work at a museum or something like that — can fill out a request for funding. Donors Choose has thousands of people who want to help teachers, so they might donate $50 or whatever to a program that they get to pick — a specific grant. And then the organization gets those things and sends them to me. They don't send me a check. They buy the things and send them to me."
Like GoFundMe, however, there's no guarantee that a Donors Choose project will be successful, especially given the amount of competition; at this writing, the site spotlights 117 requests for the Denver area alone, out of thousands nationwide. Sanks received graphic novels valued at around $100 for his classroom, "but sometimes I've put up something on Donors Choose and it hasn't gotten funded. So then we don't get the thing we need for our project, or we don't get to take the field trip we wanted to take."
Under such circumstances, Sanks has occasionally taken to the stage to make up for shortfalls. "I'm also a drag performer, so I've done shows with the specific intention of raising money for the school to send students on field trips," he says. "Like, 'Hey, we're going to do a fundraising event. The tickets are $10 or $15, and all the money we raise will go to the various grade levels, so hopefully every grade level can go on an additional field trip during the calendar year.'"
Of course, this option isn't available for most teachers — and Sanks admits to feeling some frustration over having to go to such extremes. "It's like, 'There's enough for teachers to do already. Let's ask teachers to put something else on their plate,"" he says.
In Sanks's view, Colorado's school underfunding can be traced to 1992's Taxpayer Bill of Rights, shorthanded as TABOR, which requires that tax increases be okayed by popular vote and severely limits the state's ability to hang on to extra cash.
"I think the Taxpayer Bill of Rights is doing a huge disservice to the people — and to the children, in particular — of Colorado," Sanks notes. "If there's a surplus in the budget, it gets returned to the voters, which sounds really great on paper. But that means the state can't provide additional funds or emergency funds for things, or plan ahead. Say we have a $10 million budget surplus. If it wasn't for TABOR, we could put that in the bank, and two years from now, we would be able to use it to provide Internet access to all schools or something like that. And that doesn't just affect education. It affects all kinds of entities that rely on government funding."
He adds: "If we want to be a low tax state, we're also going to be a state that provides few services — and we have to reconcile that. You can't have it both ways."
A lawsuit against TABOR has been winding its way through the court system for years and suffered another defeat this past May. But the CEA's Dallman believes there are other ways to address the school-funding issue.
"I think the legislature could do more than wait on the outcome of a possible court case," she says. "Legislators have the ability to refer measures to the ballot — and truthfully, they need to really sit down and look at the impact on our public school system, as well as the accountability we expect of our schools. If they were to engage in an open and honest evaluation, I think they'd agree that we're not properly funding the schools that our students deserve."
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Until that happens, however, teachers such as Sanks will have to continue to seek the dollars not being provided by the state or federal government, including those in their own bank account.
"I get the tax deduction every year for the $250 I spend in the classroom — that's the maximum you get from the IRS," he explains. "But I spend four or five times that on books and things. You'll find lots of teachers will do that. The average is $1,000 a year that teachers will spend. Sometimes it's for simple things like pencils or paper. But sometimes, it's an online resource" — like a spelling program he recently bought.
The bottom line from Sanks's perspective? "The level of funding at the state level has got to change if we're going to help our students succeed. And if it doesn't, eventually our students won't."