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A PTA for the 21st Century

A new model for educational philanthropy provides small-dollar donors with big-smile results.

Over the past several years I have watched in dismay as the budgetary consequences of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) force schools to adopt zero-tolerance policies toward education. I have seen in my own neighborhood a "successful" school reduce its science instruction down to 20 minutes a week for 1st-3rd graders because of fears that a single child's lack of performance on a standardized test might result in a budgetary take-down. Mr. Holland's Opus was a poignant and sadly prescient story of a bureaucracy that had its sites set far too low when it came to determining what was best for the child. Today, the Mr. (and Ms.) Hollands of America are being systematically underfunded as schools scramble to meet unrealistic criteria that make little sense for any child that has a human dimension. From my perspective, No Child Left Behind has taken a bad situation--a chronically underfunded educational system that disrespects and discards teachers by failing to pay a professional wage--and made it worse by forcing administrators to deny virtually any educational opportunity that is not directly tied to a question on a standardized test. What can we, as a tech-savvy people, do to give teachers the support their need? What support can we give so that they can provide their students with an education that is relevant in the 21st century? Can progressive-minded people form a PTA so strong that we can reverse the damage of the the NCLB Act and give our nation's youth the education that our democratic government presumes necessary for proper function?

I only watch Oprah when Amy says "Michael, you have to see this episode." One day she told me I had to see Charles Best and his new idea called Donors Choose. The idea was simple: set up a website whereby teachers could solicit donations for their classrooms--mats in the classroom so that Kindergarden students could have "a place of one's own," a digital camera so that students could take pictures of natural environments visited on field trips and thereby write more accurate narratives of their observations, a table saw so that a class could build sets for their drama productions. These donation requests can then be funded (to initiate or complete matching grants) or fulfilled by donors excited about the particular request, the type of classroom environment, the location of the school, etc. It's like a CraigsList for educational philanthropy. And what's really cool is that 100% of the donation amount goes directly into the classroom in the form of goods purchased by and delivered by Donors Choose. This is important because if the money went to the school, the school would likely be forced to allocate the money into "more of the same" rather than what the teacher has clearly and rightly identified as a need in their own classroom.

When most people think about educational philanthropy, they think about Gordon Moore's $600M donation to Cal Tech, John Werner Kluge's $400M donation to Columbia University, and Sidney Frank's $100M donation to Brown University. Heck, when billionaires like Larry Ellison can get national attention for not giving $115M to Harvard, what can we mortals do?

I hear you asking "What good is $10,000 going to do?" Or half of that. Or half of that. Or half of that. Or half of that. Well, when teachers in America are being forced to pay for pencils and papers out of their own pockets, and when those teachers are rarely earning a living wage, suddenly a $60 donation or a $100 donation makes the difference between no pencils and pencils. When students in high school math classes are expected to purchase $85 calculators and 80% of the students qualify for food assistance, a $1250 donation can bring into the classroom the tools these students need to stay with the program and succeed, rather than failing for lack of financial resources and dropping out. And for people who don't have enough to fund an entire donation request themselves, Donors Choose helps people contribute to a project, thereby starting a financial match or find a project that can be fulfilled when the final matching funds are provided. In this way, even $10 can make a difference that the donor can be sure about.

Two years ago, Donors Choose expanded to have a state-wide presence in North Carolina and I elected to have money deducted directly from my paycheck to flow into my Donors Choose account. Though it is relatively small money, the constant deductions every two weeks give me a nice little balance I can use to fund teacher requests that interest or excite me. And, unlike money donated to a school fund that can be siphoned off to other budgets, Donors Choose money goes straight into the classroom in the form of the materials teachers request: pencils, paper, digital cameras, etc. The genius of making it easy for first-time philanthropists to give, using Web 2.0 technologies to match requests and donors, and the delivery of goods in a form that cannot be re-appropriated gives the donors a true satisfaction that their gift is being received. And it gives the teachers a sense of empowerment that somebody is listening and willing to give them a chance to be successful in their classroom. The letters of thanks that donors receive from the children really prove that the system, so broken in so many schools, works for Donors Choose.

So check it out!

And now, a personal appeal...Right now, Donor's Choose is one of five finalists competing for a match of up to $5M sponsored by American Express. As a Card Member, I have given Donor's Choose my vote. If you are a Card Member, you might want to review the five finalists and consider whether Donors Choose is deserving of your vote. But whether you vote or not, I encourage you to look at how Donors Choose delivers 21st-century transparency and integrity to the educational philanthropy process, and I encourage you to think about how this transforming technology can be used to improve your child's classroom environment. Even if you do not have a child in a school participating in a Donors Choose program, think about how your direct involvement in meeting simple, basic teacher needs can improve the overall scholarship and success rate of other children and other teachers who, all together, form the larger graduating class to which your child belongs.

To me, the ability to participate directly in the success of students, teachers, and schools across the country make Donors Choose a PTA for the 21st Century. And with Donors Choose, we can restore to the teachers the materials and support they need to give children the education that every child deserves. An know...for kids!