Increasingly, the burden of making up for those budget shortfalls is falling on parents as schools and districts pass the hat. In a recent New York Times survey, parents reported spending hundreds -- and in some cases thousands -- of dollars on school supplies and support.
"The pressure to raise more and more money is growing, and falling almost entirely on PTAs," one exasperated parent commented on the Times' website.
It's a feeling Stacy Boyd knows well -- and she aims to do something about it.
A Parent-Business Association
A former teacher and school principal, Boyd is the founder of Schoola.com, a Groupon-style startup that connects parents with local businesses for deals on everything from school supplies to tech gadgets to services. In turn, parents can designate a percentage of their purchases to be donated to the school of their choice. Already, says Boyd, businesses participating in Schoola are poised to rake in as much as $25 million in sales and raise over $13 million for schools across the country this fall.
For Meredith Manak, a loyal PTA member at the Lakewood School, discovering Schoola put a whole new spin on fundraising.
"We're not having to push wrapping paper, go door-to-door to sell candy bars or candles -- things that people don't necessarily need," Manak said. "These are actually things we use every day."
And she didn't resent the long lists of school supplies nearly so much. "We can say, 'Oh cool, now I can justify why I'm spending -- this money is going back to the local school.' "
Crowdfunding the Classroom
Boyd says she conceived of Schoola when reading about the devastating tax shortfalls and budget cuts that had dropped public school funding in her home state of California by 21% since 2008. An article about daily deal sites on the opposing page caught her eye.
Quite simply, businesses and merchants team up with parent groups to create a deal. Schoola.com hosts and facilitates the fundraiser online, giving supporters the tools to share it with parents and the community. Schoola handles the purchases, fulfillment, and sending checks to merchants and schools.
For example, Manak initiated a connection with a partnership with local makeup company 2 Shea Cosmetics, where owner Shea Boothe gave huge discounts on mani-pedis and jewelry in a sale that raised over $3,000 for the school district.
Parents win, she says, because they save money and funnel funds to their children's schools. Businesses win, because they get word-of-mouth marketing exposure and boost sales, creating what Boyd deems a "wonderful virtuous cycle."
Thousands of retailers are now on board, and some big brands are giving parents enticing offers at apparel shops, school supply depots, and drug and grocery stores. Discounts are as high as 50%, and up to half of the revenue from the sales goes to the schools.
From Sept. 24 through Sept. 28, Schoola will ramp up its efforts with an interactive discount shopping event during which families can donate 20% to 50% of the money from their purchases to the school of their choice.
Boyd may have conceived of a private-enterprise patch for the problems of scanty school budgets, but that doesn't mean she wouldn't be happy to see those problems solved by our public servants.
"We can't stop knocking on the doors of our state legislature for underfunding children in particular," Boyd said. "Until we solve Medicaid, we're going to have a challenge in education funding. We need to look at creating ways of having our children have the opportunities."
But in an election year set against the backdrop of a tepid recovery, and with a potentially catastrophic fiscal cliff just ahead, it seems unlikely that state and local governments will be sending healthier checks to schools any time soon. And that leaves the up-by-their-bootstraps methods of DIY crowd-funding standing alone at the head of the class.