Following a now-familiar cycle, most of the country’s state legislative sessions—where education funding is often on the docket—have ended, and many school librarians face a new normal as another academic year begins. The profession is still caught in a general downward staffing trend that has now spanned a decade. Many budget cuts made in the wake of the nation’s 2008 recession have not been restored, and, according to recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 9,200 full-time equivalent school librarian positions—roughly 15% of such positions in the U.S.—were eliminated between 2009 and 2016.
As reductions in education funding still loom nationwide, school librarians are called to be positive, innovative, and stalwart as they seek out ways to showcase and defend the benefits of the work they do, and it can be both a difficult and rewarding experience. Thankfully, there are some updated resources, fresh techniques, and, yes, tried-and-true partner organizations ready to help.
“Advocacy has always been a part of librarians’ jobs in general, and school librarians in particular,” says Mary Keeling, library services supervisor for Newport News (Va.) Public Schools and president of the American Association of School Librarians. Keeling’s former work experience as a museum librarian has helped shape her personal view on this topic, and she sees similarities between the plights of school librarians and other special librarians. “The situation for any librarian who is working in another agency is that we have to constantly prove our value to the organization’s bottom line,” she says. “In a school, we are at the intersection of education and librarianship, and because education is the parent organization, we have to show the educational enterprise that there is a value added by the library; it’s not a luxury, it’s not a public service, it is a contributing member of the enterprise.”
But Keeling believes there is some nuance to advocacy. “It is really not about selling people on the value of libraries as much as it is building partnerships, so that people see our value anyway and they will act for us because they know that we help them get their jobs done,” she says.
As an example, Keeling points to recent developments in the Shawnee Public Schools district in Oklahoma. In March, Shawnee superintendent April Grace received the 2019 Oklahoma School Administrator Award from Oklahoma School Librarians, a division of the Oklahoma Library Association. She was selected for that honor because she has committed to fully funding all the school libraries in her district, an effort that has included ensuring that all the secondary schools had full-time librarians and creating the position of district library coordinator. “A new superintendent came on board after school library programs had pretty much been eliminated, and because she believed in the value of school libraries, she brought them back, established a department, a budget, and positions,” Keeling notes. “That’s the kind of advocacy we want. We want people to say, ‘Yeah, this is a really important part of our enterprise and we can’t do our work without it.’ ”
For Suzanna Panter, program manager for school libraries at Tacoma Public Schools, the need for advocacy “stems from a lack of understanding from administrators.” Though she says she feels “super supported” by the superintendent and other central administration in her own district, she knows that this is not always the case in other places. Panter points out that the majority of school districts in the U.S. have site-based management, “which means that the principal is given pretty much the ultimate authority. So if your principal does not understand the value that you provide, then it doesn’t matter what you’re doing at a district level or a state level, because they’re just going to do what they want. And what they want is what they know.”
Panter believes that telling the story of school libraries to preservice administrators could be a game changer. She would like to “somehow get the education schools and colleges across the country to take up the banner and understand that it’s critical for our students to have quality library programs,” she says. “We have principals now who never had a school librarian. They lived in a world where there were none—so they question why it’s necessary.”
Panter has put her advocacy ideas into action by creating a video series that spotlights her district’s libraries and librarians, a project she hopes can elevate the profession in a number of ways, including by reaching the aforementioned pre-service administrators. (See “School Library Advocacy Close-Up,” p. 36.) “It’s hard,” she says of advocacy efforts in general. “It wears you down, because the fight never ends. The turnover rate of superintendents and other administrators is high, and it’s exhausting. We’re just trying to make as much headway as we can in the little time we’re here and make sure that our kids have access—because it’s critical.”
On the Legislative Front
Among the headline-grabbing education funding stories from the most recent legislative sessions, Spokane Public Schools in Washington announced that it has eliminated school librarian jobs for the 2019–2020 school year, citing its plan to “change the library model district-wide” and put classroom teachers in charge of overseeing the district’s school libraries and their materials. Also in Washington, Seattle Public Schools threatened to reduce its 24 middle and high school librarians to part-time in light of a budget deficit. The Seattle Public Schools librarians and some of their supporters traveled to their state’s legislative building in Olympia on April 2 to lobby lawmakers and protest the proposed cuts. Their efforts paid off and the cuts were not made.
School librarians in Texas made the news this past winter and spring when they were initially excluded from a bill introduced in January by state Sen. Jane Nelson to provide $5,000 raises for all full-time classroom teachers across the state. By March 4—after intense advocacy efforts by the librarians and their supporters—the bill had been amended to include school librarians, who are certified educators, and ended up passing unanimously. Though the bill passed, some confusion over the result remains, as the legislature approved guidelines that allow individual districts to determine the dollar amounts of the pay raises.
Generating grassroots school library advocacy in the legislative arena continues to be the mission of nonprofit EveryLibrary’s Save School Librarians initiative, which receives financial support from Follett. As EveryLibrary executive director John Chrastka describes it, the initiative provides “direct tactical support for school librarians in crisis as well as strategic support to state school library associations for their legislative and policy initiatives.” He looked back on 2018–2019, as well as ahead to 2019–2020, to assess some of the legislative successes and challenges in his purview.
“In the 2018–2019 school year, we were able to respond to nearly two dozen district-level threats to school librarian jobs and budgets by activating the public in those local school districts,” Chrastka notes. On the state level, he says, “one legislative highlight for me was helping the Iowa Library Association kill a bad bill in committee that would have declassified school librarians from required to optional. Their policy framework is the legitimate one for Iowa schools and we helped them reach the public across the state to defeat that attack on the future of the profession.”
In a similar way, Chrastka says that during the midterm elections, the Save School Librarians platform was put to work across Utah and Colorado for two education revenue ballot measures that would have benefited school library programs. “Neither passed, but our colleagues in the Utah Educational Library Media Association and the Colorado Association of School Libraries built new relationships and capacity across their states’ education funding networks,” he notes. In addition, school librarians in Georgia fought—and won—a battle similar to that of their counterparts in Texas, lobbying to be included as certified educators in a historic statewide pay raise in the FY20 state budget, and Save School Librarians assisted them in achieving that victory.
As the 2019–2020 school year kicks off, Chrastka says that his organization stands ready to help school librarians under threat of cuts through the Save School Librarians platform and through one-on-one behind the scenes coaching and support. “It’s really important to show up personally for folks who are in trouble, and I am proud of our ability to do that; it’s a testimony to Follett’s commitment to the profession that it helps us make that happen for every school librarian,” he notes. “I don’t have a forecast for where specific cuts will hit next school year. I only know that school library stakeholders and state associations need to comprehensively engage their education funding and policy framework for the systems to change.”
Heading toward that goal, Chrastka says that the state school library organizations in Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania “are making great progress on their respective ‘mandate bills’ [requiring one state-certified school librarian in every public school], and the Florida Association of Media Educators really moved its agenda in the last session. Our hope with SaveSchoolLibrarians.org is to be not only reactive, but also to help our partners be proactive for the future of the profession.”
Proven Partners, Fresh Strategies
At ALA Midwinter last January, then–ALA president Loida Garcia-Febo unveiled a redesigned landing page for the organization’s roster of updated and new advocacy tools and resources. This revamp is an outgrowth of the ALA’s Libraries=Strong Communities campaign, and the refreshed site contains a link to the AASL advocacy landing page, which contains information and tools more specific to schools’ circumstances.
Keeling of the AASL says that it is perhaps not widely known that when school districts or individual librarians are facing an issue such as a threat to jobs or a challenge to library materials, the ALA Public Policy and Advocacy office will “craft joint letters from the ALA president and the AASL president.” Letter topics can range from funding and staffing issues, to student privacy, to students’ First Amendment rights to access information (which would also involve ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom). “These are very important advocacy efforts,” Keeling adds, “and we do hear that the letters make a difference.”
In another form of advocacy, the AASL has worked closely with its state affiliate organizations to “draft a number of position statements that define a strong school library as having adequate funding first of all, but also having a full staff, which is at minimum one librarian in every school with appropriate technical support personnel and a structure that encourages classroom educators to collaborate with school librarians so that we can be fully integrated into the instructional and learning program of the school,” according to Keeling. Additional AASL position statements outline various kinds of leadership roles for school librarians, including community outreach, strategic planning, and providing professional development and technology instruction for teachers. “We speak out for that kind of strength in a library,” Keeling says.
Beyond its legislative and policy efforts, Save School Librarians strives to expand its visibility and influence in various ways. In March, EveryLibrary headed to the South by Southwest Education Conference (SXSW EDU), where Chrastka says it convened a national policy panel about the next steps for school library stakeholders within the federal Every Student Succeeds Act framework. “We see the restoration of professionally staffed, effective school library programs that have a collection that supports the curriculum as key turn-around strategies for failing schools,” he notes. “Going to places like SXSW EDU to make that case is a critical part of our advocacy and outreach strategy.”
EveryLibrary has also partnered with the International Society for Technology in Education’s School Librarians network on a series of advocacy webinars “to help teach the skills needed to fight the cuts before they happen,” Chrastka says. He credits donor support and funding from Follett Learning with enabling EveryLibrary to “provide these services pro bono to local school librarians and our state organizational partners.”
In the end, no matter which resources or tools school librarians may avail themselves of, Keeling stresses what she sees as the guiding principle for all advocacy: “If you tell your story in a way that people can understand it, without library jargon, and it is about the impact on children, that seems to me to be the most effective.”