In December 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) amid strong bipartisan support. The House passed the bill by 359–64, and seven days later the Senate passed the bill 85–12; President Obama signed it into law on December 10. The act, a long-overdue reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), for the first time included language on “effective school library programs” and student learning outcomes. Although this Sisyphean task had been in the works since 2007, the legislation was seemingly enacted overnight, leaving some puzzled about what the victory means for library funding priorities at the state and local levels.
In 2002, when President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, the previous ESEA reauthorization, the educational decision making and resource allocations were shifted away from the states. Testing requirements were significantly increased within legislation that also lacked language to include school librarians and libraries.
Since then several iterations of educational legislation have been presented to Congress to support school librarians, but they yielded little success. The message—with the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Government Relations beating the drum, the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) calling school affiliates in each state to action, and ALA members making sure their voices are heard on the Hill—was loud and clear: School librarians ensure student success.
ESSA should certainly be heralded as a victory for the whole library community—but the work is far from over, and a seat at the table is not guaranteed.
Although school libraries and school librarians are specifically authorized as eligible for ESSA funding in the legislation (for resources and professional development, for example), “eligibility” does not translate into a mandate for funding. Instead, any such mandate must come through ESSA implementation plans at the state, district, and local level. As such, this federal victory is quickly shifting to strategizing, coalition building, and lobbying at the state and local levels. While some state educational agencies are already developing plans, local communities still have time to make an impact and ensure that school libraries are represented. The rulemaking and guidance continues at the federal level, and the process in each state will continue until the governor signs by May 2017.
To strengthen state and local efforts, AASL is collaborating with ALA’s Office for Library Advocacy and Chapter Relations Office to offer free workshops to all state school library associations, as well as unified state chapters, to help prepare for ESSA implementation.
Working together, ALA is well poised to help school libraries in every state maximize the opportunities that ESSA offers. Just as it worked together to pass federal legislation, ALA is now partnering with states to ensure a sustainable impact and recognition of the value for long-term financial stability to school libraries. As the saying goes, “Together, we are so much more than the sum of our parts.”
Conducted by AASL leaders in consultation with state organizations, the ESSA workshops are designed to walk attendees at any level of knowledge through an understanding of the federal legislation, the impact it can have on school libraries in their states, and details on process, timeline, and opportunities. Using key message points developed by AASL and ALA as a starting point, state workshop attendees will identify coalition partners and develop personal messaging or “elevator speeches” that will resonate in their communities and enable strong advocacy plans at the state and local levels.
Sending the message
Legislative efforts on the federal and state level are essential, but each and every school librarian must send the message to district and building-level decision makers that the profession is critically important for teaching and learning in today’s K–12 education environment. We all know that a student’s success in digital literacy—to access, process, and understand information to create and share new knowledge—leads to student success in college, career, and beyond. That message must be delivered to the right people.
The first trainings took place at the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, and state-level trainings commenced in September in Delaware, Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Georgia. Librarians from all types of libraries, educators, and administrators attended the sessions, typically lasting four hours.
“The AASL ESSA workshop has given me powerful, concise language for advocacy, but also the information to communicate with the key stakeholders in my district and across the state of Massachusetts,” said Anita Cellucci, president of the Massachusetts School Library Association. “This is a unique opportunity to improve equitable and academic outcomes for all students.”
Connecting school affiliates with state chapters and state libraries allows ALA to close the loop. For years, ALA has referred to a library ecosystem in which libraries of all types are interdependent and need to work together for mutual success. ESSA puts this into practice in a big way. With more than 34 ESSA trainings scheduled in the fall, AASL and ALA predict they will amplify the voice of school libraries throughout the country.
All Hands on Deck for ESSA
The recently signed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides a crucial opportunity to elevate all librarians and the communities they serve—and school librarians need the assistance of the library community to advise, organize, strategize, and build coalitions.
At the state level:
- Connect your school librarians with your local and state networks of policymakers and influencers.
- Watch for news from your state association and take action when requested.
- Attend an ESSA workshop. It’s not just for school librarians. Visit aasl.org/state-workshops for more information about ESSA legislation, including the location of state workshops.
- Work with your state chapter and state librarians to help school libraries create a strategy for moving forward.
In your community:
- Identify leaders who can represent public, academic, and special libraries on your state’s ESSA team.
- Issue a statement in support of effective school library programs. Contact your local media and see if they’ll run it as an op-ed or letter to the editor.
A victory for school libraries is a victory for all libraries. Work with your state chapters and school affiliates to get involved.
For more information, visit essa.aasl.org.