Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) and Arizona Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) this week introduced the bicameral Right to Read Act (S. 5064 and H.R. 9056), legislation that would ensure all U.S. students have access to a school library staffed by a certified school librarian.
Among the bill's provisions, the Right to Read Act would authorize up to $500 million in Comprehensive Literacy State Development Grants as well as increase the authorization for the Innovative Approaches to Literacy program to $100 million, a significant bump from the $28 million currently proposed for FY2023. The legislation also would also invest in "recruiting and retaining state-certified school librarians," and "school library staff working to broaden access to library collections." And crucially, the legislation also reaffirms that "First Amendment rights apply to school libraries" and would extend "liability protections" to teachers and school librarians—a direct response to the alarming trend of book bans and educational gag orders disproportionately targeting titles involving issues of race and the LGBTQ+ community and in some cases threatening librarians and teachers with fines, jail time, or job loss for providing access to books.
Introduced on October 6, the bill acknowledges "disparities in access to school library resources in communities across the nation" and the impact on student literacy, and proposes to "surge" federal investment to address the issues. According to the U.S. Department of Education as many as 2.5 million students are enrolled in districts where there are no school libraries, and some 30% of students do not have access to full time school librarians, notes a release from Reed and Grijalva announcing the bill.
“Literacy is the cornerstone of a high-quality education in every society, yet today we are seeing our nation’s children subjected to politically-led efforts to block access to books. Censoring our education system based on bias is national travesty,” Grijalva said, in a release. “This legislation will support the development of effective school libraries, including the recruitment and retention of librarians, and provide federal funding for literacy resources in high need communities. This bill will also help protect the right to access diverse, inclusive school library collections. Together, we will build and develop effective school libraries with diverse and robust resources to deliver positive and formative opportunities for students.”
"Quality teaching and effective school libraries go hand-in-hand with securing the right to read for our students,” added Reed. “The Right to Read Act is about making sure that low-income, minority, children with disabilities, and English language learners have equal access to that opportunity through high quality, appropriately staffed school libraries and diverse and inclusive reading materials both at school and at home.”
ALA officials this week issued strong statements of support for the bill.
“The Right to Read Act...insists that all students have the right to read freely and deserve equitable access to a robust collection in their school library," said ALA president Lessa Kananiʻopua Pelayo-Lozada, in a statement, pointing out that the pandemic shined a spotlight on the many important roles of school librarians. "School libraries bridge the gap between access and opportunity for all learners. Now is the time to scale that success, not take it for granted. Every school library should be staffed by a state-certified school librarian. Strong school libraries staffed by school librarians lead to stronger teachers and greater student success, and ALA applauds Senator Jack Reed and Representative Raúl Grijalva for introducing the Right to Read Act.”
Kathy Lester, school librarian at East Middle School in Plymouth, Mich., and the current president of the American Association of School Librarians, a division of ALA, also applauded the bill.
“School librarians professionally curate diverse, inclusive collections of materials; motivate and guide student reading; teach information/media literacy skills; and integrate technology for teaching and learning," Lester said, in a statement. "An effective school library supports the entire learning community and is essential for student success. AASL endorses the Right to Read Act of 2022 and thanks Senator Reed, Representative Grijalva, and their staff for introducing this important legislation.”
The bill is welcome news for school librarians, who have seen their ranks shrink on recent decades, as well as for Freedom to Read advocates in the wake of an unprecedented wave of book bans and educational gag orders. With just weeks until the November elections and a lame duck Congress, it is unlikely the bill will advance in 2022 and will likely be reintroduced in 2023.