When President Obama signed ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act) into law in December 2015, it was hailed by librarians as a very big win. After years of advocacy work by the ALA and other library groups, the new federal education law includes significant and long absent support for school libraries—including access to federal grant funding. But as school librarians gathered in Atlanta for the 2017 ALA Midwinter Meeting, the fate of ESSA under a Trump administration is now an open question.
“We just don't know what's going to happen after the inauguration takes place, but we are hopeful that ESSA implementation will move forward,” says Audrey Church, professor of school librarianship at Longwood University, in Farmville, Va., and the current president of the American Association of School Librarians. “We are continuing our efforts as if it will. But it is really a wait-and-see.”
But despite the uncertainty that comes with the Trump administration (and Department of Education nominee Betsy DeVos), school librarians at the ALA meeting arrived at Atlanta with hope—and a renewed focus—thanks to ESSA.
That's because the heavy lifting for library advocates did not end with ESSA’s passage. Each state must now submit an ESSA Implementation Plan to the U.S. Department of Education by April 2017 (for the school year beginning August 2017). In order to gain the full benefits provided for under ESSA, local and state agencies will have to make sure their laws, rules, and regulations are “ESSA-compliant and grant-ready." And library advocates have been working hard to make sure school libraries are represented in those local plans, no easy feat after so many years of school libraries getting no federal support.
“After President Obama signed ESSA into law in December 2015, AASL went into action,” Church says, with efforts ranging from a constantly updated online resource on the AASL site, to a series of state workshops held across the country. “We really gathered steam last summer, and by the end of January we will have provided 37 state workshops for our affiliate, state-level library associations." Church estimates that the workshops have reached over 1,500 school librarians across the country.
“This has been a huge undertaking, but one that is absolutely essential for AASL members,” she says, “both to inform them better about the federal timeline for ESSA implementation, but also to give them the knowledge and skills they can use on the ground to advocate at the state and local level. We are really trying to empower our members to be more visible and vocal for school libraries.”
ESSA, which replaces No Child Left Behind, includes a number of provisions that expressly support school libraries and librarians, from the inclusion of school librarians in the definition of “specialized instructional support personnel” to authorizing states to use federal grant funding for school library-based instruction and programs, for professional development for school librarians, as well as for purchasing books and other materials. In contrast, NCBL did not include school libraries, making them a convenient budget line to slash, library advocates say.
How bad did things get for school libraries under NCLB? Church says it varies from state to state. In her home state of Virginia, for example, state law requires schools to provide certified school librarians. But a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer illustrated just how bad things have gotten in other states. The piece called school librarians in the Philadelphia School District “a species nearly extinct,” and noted that there are just eight certified school librarians in the district, down from almost 200 in the 1990s in a school districts serving 134,000 students.
“Our position is that every community deserves the benefit of a full-time school librarian,” Church says. “We make a difference in student learning, and we do a disservice to children by not providing a trained librarian. Our position is that the school librarian should be the strongest teacher in the school."
On that score, Church says that the last months of ESSA workshops and advocacy (including help from library lobby group EveryLibrary, and support from Rosen Publishing) has at the very least energized school librarians and their supporters, and presented them a golden opportunity to plant the flag for school libraries.
“Visible and vocal is my mantra,” Church says. “If you read some of the comments on the AASL’s ESSA landing page, you'll see that people felt empowered by the workshops. The workshops have been a wonderful opportunity for AASL to provide critical information and leadership to local librarians, and to provide them with information and skills that will be valuable to them no matter what happens with ESSA. Because we need to advocate every day for our libraries.”