As students head back to school in droves, many are finding classrooms full of new supplies, from pencils to computers. But increasingly those supplies are being paid for from a new source: crowdfunding.
Funding platforms usually known for financing young companies are being used more and more by public school teachers to buy supplies, finding it an effective source to fill the capital gap in their cash-strapped districts.
Giving this movement a huge boost, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last week donated $1.5 million to crowdfunding organization DonorsChoose.org to help provide students with needed supplies this back-to-school season.
Jocelyn Benford, a second grade teacher at PS 261 in a low-income neighborhood in New York's Brooklyn borough, finds it frustrating how little money she is given to provide something as basic as pencils and paper for the year. "Even something as simple as copy paper. I have to provide my own copy paper," Benford said. "So anytime I send a letter home to parents I'm providing that copy paper."
She knows first-hand how expensive shopping for school supplies can be. When her daughter was a second grader, Benford spent nearly $150 on supplies for the year. "It's not possible for some of the parents because they're too busy or struggling financially."
It's not just paper these teachers struggle to provide for their students. Melissa Farran, another PS 261 teacher, wanted to see an improvement on her class's deteriorating 50-year-old desks, so she looked to DonorsChoose for help.
"It's amazing. I put all of my (request for donations) up (on the site)," she said. "Kids get so excited when things come in and they know it's been donated. We can't wait to take pictures and write thank you notes to the donors."
DonorsChoose allows anyone to donate as little as a dollar to the project of their choice. Founder Charles Best started the organization when he was a 25-year-old history teacher in The Bronx, struggling to provide supplies he needed to make his lessons more effective.
"It just felt wrong that the kids I was teaching didn't have the same access to materials that I did when I was a student," Best said. "I saw first-hand that all schools are not created equal and the students shouldn't have to go without all of the materials that they need for a great education."
Best wanted his class to read "Little House on the Prairie," but the school didn't have the funds to buy enough copies for the entire class. Best made photocopies of the chapters for his students until he realized that there must be someone out there who would want to help. Fourteen years later, Best's DonorsChoose has raised more than $250 million to help more than 12 million students.
The donations toward projects for Farran and Benford have totaled about $6,000. The gifts have enabled the students of PS 261 to have pencils, paper, iPads and even field trips.
Among them is Hannah Edwards, an art teacher in St. Paul, Minnesota, who turned to crowdfunding after her budget was cut this year. She was then able to purchase canvas and painting supplies. "It means so much to have the support," she said. "My students will benefit greatly from having the supplies we need."
Best has donation goals he wants the organization to reach, but said he also wants "to show that DonorsChoose, specifically, and crowdfunding, more generally, can help to change the system itself."
"We're doing that by opening up our data so that policymakers and government officials can see what resources teachers need in real time and hopefully spend taxpayer dollars even more wisely and efficiently and responsibly because they are able to see exactly what classrooms need," he said.
With success in crowdfunding for the first projects, all of the second grade teachers at PS 261 have decided to use DonorsChoose as the only source providing school supplies this year. The school administrators said if it works for the second grade they might use crowdfunding to help provide each grade with supplies.
"I figured out at one point that if every single parent made the same level of donation to the supplies through DonorsChoose, it would cost everyone about $35," Benford said. "That's a huge difference from the $150 that I spent as a parent of a second grader."
—By CNBC's Landon Dowdy