Crowdfunding campaigns have become an increasingly popular way to fill in educational funding gaps, but they can be as risky as they are effective.

“So many…jobs now are technology or STEM-related,” Megan Picott tells The Toledo Blade, “so learning the basics is really important.” Picott, a fifth grade teacher at Hill View Elementary in Sylvania, Ohio, believes students should start learning how to code as early as possible in order to prepare for the demands of the modern economy, which is why she recently purchased six “Ozobots” for her classroom.

Unfortunately, the Ozobots — which collectively cost around $500 — were not part of Hill View’s budget, which meant Picott was forced to find a different source of funding to cover the cost of her investment. Like many other teachers across the country, Picott turned to an online crowdfunding platform to raise the requisite money.

The Power of the Platform

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over 94% of America’s public school teachers spent their own money on classroom supplies during the 2014-2015 school year, with the average annual expenditure totaling a remarkable $480. Teachers like Picott are understandably fed up with these unrefunded expenses, which is why the rise of crowdfunding has been such a godsend.

Picott’s platform of choice, DonorsChoose, has already helped educators raise over $620 million for some 600,000 classroom projects across the country. As of mid-July, DonorsChoose was hosting nearly 950 fundraising campaigns for classrooms in the state of Ohio alone.

However, as effective as crowdfunding is at offsetting the rising costs of staying on the cutting-edge, it is not without its pitfalls. As a July 11 report issued by Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost highlights, only 41% of Ohio public school districts report that their school board or district administration has adopted a formal policy governing the use of crowdfunding platforms. This, Yost says, must change.

Serious Privacy Concerns

One of Yost’s primary concerns relates to student privacy. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and Section 3319.321 of the Ohio Revised Code (ORC) all forbid the disclosure of any information that could be used to identify students without parental consent.

“A crowdfunding campaign might inadvertently violate these provisions by using a classroom photo that makes it easy to identify students,” Yost’s report points out. “Or by including a narrative that provides enough clues — age, location, learning disability, personal characteristics, information about family members — to make it possible to identify the student and reveal legally shielded information about [them].”

Indeed, the most effective crowdfunding campaigns — in education and elsewhere — are those that tell a compelling human story. For instance, a couple years ago, kindergarten teacher Anna Callender ran a campaign through DonorsChoose to cover the cost of a portable air conditioner for her classroom in a charter school in the northeast Columbus neighborhood of Linden. “I had children passing out from the heat and I had children having asthma attacks from the heat,” Callender says.

Thankfully, these dire circumstances spurred the local community into action — donors quickly volunteered the $500 Callender needed for an A/C unit — but it would have been very easy for Callender to run afoul of FERPA by running a campaign grounded in such an achingly personal entreaty.

Unforeseen Legal Liability

While teachers like Picott and Callender are clearly acting in good faith, Yost warns that unregulated crowdfunding can expose districts to a range of increased legal liabilities. As Yost’s report explains, “ORC 9.38 mandates that all money received, collected by, or due to a public official under color of office, or collected on behalf of a public office, must be deposited with the treasurer of that public office within a specified time.”

ORC 3313.51 dictates that the Treasurer of a board of education is in charge of all district funds — including money raised through any crowdfunding campaign that is sanctioned by a school within the district. If any of this money were to go missing, the Treasurer could be held legally responsible.

Mitigating a District’s Risk

Yost suggests that districts institute a handful of common-sense policies to mitigate the risks associated with crowdfunding. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Requiring that all crowdfunding campaigns be approved by a designated school or district administrator.
  • Directing said administrator to double-check that proposed campaigns do not violate any state or federal laws, especially with respect to the confidentiality of student information.
  • Requiring that donations are always used for the purposes outlined in the crowdfunding campaign.
  • Requiring school board approval before a crowdfunding campaign’s donations can be formally accepted.
  • Establishing that all crowdfunding campaign donations are the property of the school district, and must be recorded, deposited, and dispersed according to its bylaws.

That said, at the end of the day, the only way for districts to eliminate the risks associated with crowdfunding campaigns is to abstain from them altogether. Of course, this is only feasible if a district is able to provide teachers with the (traditionally appropriated) funding they need to buy Ozobots, air conditioners, and whatever else they deem necessary to provide their students with an exceptional learning experience.

That’s where Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS platform comes into play. CheckPoint streamlines a district’s data recording, organizing, and reporting processes, helping ensure that it receives every last penny to which it’s legally entitled. It should never fall to teachers to fill in funding gaps, and by choosing a tool like CheckPoint, administrators can alleviate this temptation and minimize the use of effective but potentially risky crowdfunding campaigns.