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Crowdfunding catching on in cash-strapped schools

The timing couldn’t be better for fundraising to evolve in public education, experts said.

U.S. Census Bureau data show that 2011 was the first time per-student spending declined in public education nationally, at least since data collection began in 1977. In Texas, funding fell from $6,656 per student in 2001 to $6,559 in 2011, according to Texas Education Agency data.

The need is so great that startups, including a Houston company, are joining the ranks of education-focused crowdfunding giants like DonorsChoose.org and AdoptAClassroom.org.

Andyshea Saberioon, co-founder and CEO of Houston-based PledgeCents, said his fledgling crowdfunding company started last spring because of the tremendous shortages in public schools. Teachers spend hundreds of dollars a years from their own pockets on books, supplies, and innovative projects.

“I do think it’s completely wrong in a sense that teachers have to find outside sources for funding,” the 25-year-old Houston native said.

His company wants to make it as painless as possible for teachers, administrators, and parent leaders to ask for help. PledgeCents, which recently won a city of Houston business plan competition grant, will build proposals for the school, even the crucial video appeals that increase the campaign’s chance to succeed, Saberioon said.

“It’s about making that emotional connection,” he said.

Teachers and schools can then circulate the proposal via eMail and social media, reaching family and friends they wouldn’t normally approach while broadening the fundraising potential exponentially.

When PledgeCents make its pitch to schools, Saberioon said, he and his partner intentionally avoid the terms crowdsourcing or crowdfunding, which tend to scare off teachers.

“They don’t know what that is,” he said. “A lot of teachers we speak with, some are not tech-savvy; the majority don’t have time.”

Ironically, teachers are among the founders of old-fashioned crowdsourcing—sending home letters every fall asking parents to donate the tissues, crayons, and hand sanitizer needed for the classroom. Crowdfunding simply moves that effort online and broadens access to potential donors, said Melanie Duppins, senior director of policy and learning for DonorChoose.org.

All kinds of supplies

More than 1,100 teachers in Harris County have proposals on DonorsChoose, asking for pencils, books, and advanced technology for small-group instruction. Nationally, about 75,000 public school teachers—or 2 percent to 3 percent of all teachers—are regulars on the site that hopes to pump $55 million in supplies into schools this fiscal year.

Unlike the scripted curriculum mandated by the state, crowdfunding can provide teachers some room to be innovative.

“DonorsChoose.org is venture capital for teachers to be creative,” Duppins said.

Admittedly, crowdfunding has only been attempted by the top tier of tech-savvy teachers, said Sheri Alford, educational technology director for the Spring Branch school district.

“It does seem like it’s slow moving, but I guess it’s just a cycle we’re all working through,” she said.

(c) 2014, the Houston Chronicle. Visit the Houston Chronicle online at www.chron.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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