Talking Turkey about School Libraries

November 23, 2011

An online petition is demanding that the Obama administration mandate the full funding and staffing of school libraries. It’s posted to a new interactive We the People web page, hosted by the White House, where U.S. citizens can petition the government for a redress of grievances as stated in the First Amendment. The petition was initiated by a teacher-librarian in California who must really mean business since she calls for the “immediate withdrawal of all federal monies” from any school that fails to comply. As you may expect, it’s drawn some controversy—as well as almost more than 10,000 signatures; 25,000 are needed by November 27 in order for the government to take action.

Why would an educator who clearly values literacy and lifelong learning propose the “immediate withdrawal of all federal monies” from noncompliant schools?

As you ponder that, consider this: What do you get when you invest $10 million over three years to reinvigorate the school libraries of the Houston Independent School District? Well, that all depends on what you had before you began investing the money—and therein lies a lesson.

“Despite $10 Million Allocation, Story of HISD Libraries Looks Grim” read a headline in the November 20 Houston Chronicle. The story reports that, according to school district data, “more than 80% of HISD libraries fail to meet state guidelines for staffing and book collections.” That’s pretty grim, but here’s the punch line: A 2007 audit of HISD library resources, as reported in the November 25, 2007, Chronicle, had found Houston’s school libraries to have been in better shape three years ago than they are now, $10 million later.

How is that possible? There are some who would say this is proof positive that you can’t fix education by throwing money at it. Of course, it all depends where you “throw” it; in the case of HISD, then–Chief Academic Officer Karen Soehnge said in the February 12, 2008, Chronicle that it was “the Cadillac version” of state standards to have an average of 9,000 books per school library, staffing of at least one certified librarian, and a collection whose average copyright date is less than 15 years old. “We want to improve the quality of our libraries, but maybe not to these particular standards,” Soehnge explained.

Where did the $10 million go? Some school principals bought books, others library furniture and technology. Others decided that their schools didn’t need a certified librarian. That goes a long way toward explaining how Houston’s library media program has gone from bad to worse, doesn’t it?

It’s no wonder that school librarians are frustrated—and not just in Houston. Since 1993, Keith Curry Lance has documented in 20 states, as well as Ontario, that the one sure-fire predictor of a student’s academic success is attending a school with a fully funded and staffed school library. The data is clear: Why don’t policymakers take heed?

Who can say? Some may not believe the studies, or may not be aware of them, or perhaps have other priorities. Why, there may even be some U.S. senators who might fail to seize one moment to strengthen educational opportunities for America’s youth through strong school libraries, and others who go on to seize another. That’s just what ALA is doing, in fact, through a new task force comprised of librarians from across the Association.

According to ALA’s Office for Library Advocacy, the immediate goal of the Presidential Task Force on School Libraries is to ensure that school libraries are restored to legislation reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act through a Senate amendment. Among the strategies is forming state delegations of librarians and supporters to visit their representatives’ home offices over the holidays, specifically before January 23, 2012, when Congress is back in session. ALA will soon be reaching out to state chapter presidents, chapter leaders of the American Association of School Libraries and the Association of College and Research Libraries, and leaders of the Federal Library Legislative Advocacy Network.

Stay tuned.