Dear Council Members:
Tomorrow is going to be the beginning of a torturous dialogue for the District of Columbia. Chancellor Henderson is going to present a list of schools she will be propose be closed. And I fear that the chancellor will attempt to create a nexus between the closures and presence of librarians in the schools. The argument is quite simple: the only way to afford librarians is through the savings generated by school closings. Not only is this a dishonest argument–one the chancellor has made before–but unchallenged is a very damaging one as well. It requires us to accept the notion that libraries exist far from the crucial core activities of a school. This is not true. In fact the evidence screams defiantly that the opposite is the case. Libraries are essential to virtually every feature of a school’s mission.
Study after study–sixty since 1965–have shown that presence of libraries and credentialed librarians have a dramatic impact on literacy development and overall student performance. A study done in Colorado and released this year examined staffing levels in school libraries in 2005 and then revisited those same sites in 2011. Those schools that had been able to retain a librarian during those years or gained one had significantly better reading scores. Those that had a librarian but then lost the position saw their scores deteriorate. And those that did not have librarians at all saw poorer reading achievement. And recent studies in states such as Pennsylvania produced similar results. In the 2010-11 academic year the Hampton, South Carolina School District was a beneficiary of a grant from the United States Department of Education designed to use libraries for literacy development and improve reading skills. The grant funneled money into the district for library collection development, technology acquisition and staffing with certified library media specialist. A team of evaluators selected by the education department selected to review the results of the grant reported, “Students in the third, fifth and seventh grades in Hampton School District I had a significant increase in reading MAP scores from the fall of 2010 to the spring of 2011.”
And the most successful urban school district in the United States, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, have comprehensive school library programs. That’s the case in Austin, Texas, Hillsborough County, Florida, Jefferson County, Kentucky and Charlotte, North Carolina. In Anchorage, Alaska, a school district of comparable size to DCPS that is racially, ethnically and socieo-econominally diverse , has a librarian in all of its schools. Though not a perfect school district it has better reading scores than ours.
In the five years of mayoral control of the schools DCPS has had the ability to ability to have properly-resourced, well-staffed libraries and has consistently chosen a different path. The last superintendent, Clifford Janey, instituted a requirement that all schools have a librarian. Upon arrival Michelle Rhee kept the requirement in place but gave virtually any school that asked an exemption. The cuts the chancellor made in school librarian positions back in the spring accelerated a decline in the school libraries underway since 2007. There has been no direct, consistent funding for school library materials since that time. And though DCPS has a line in its budget for library and media services, in the past two fiscal years most of the money has been spent on things completely unrelated to libraries. This information came to light as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request. It paid for such things as building maintenance, HVAC repairs, a strategic plan for the DCPS Office of Community and Family Engagement done by a San Francisco-based consultant. The chancellor and her team have made repeated representations to the council that they were asking for money that would be spent on school libraries. But there was never any plan in place for how to spend that money. Instead it became or was intended to be a piggybank available for robbing at will.
Claiming poverty is a pernicious and frequently used argument made by the chancellor and her top lieutenants to justify both the dearth of librarians and the paucity of materials in school libraries. But that argument collapses in the face of even modest scrutiny. Mary Levy, a longtime DCPS budget observer and trusted council adviser, indicated back in the spring that money was being sequestered in budget line by the school system for unknown purposes. More than that we have a school system that can hardly be called underfunded when it’s over $800 million this fiscal year for 46,000 student s. Anne Arundel County, Maryland has 76,300 students that it educates with a budget that is only $177,127,300 more than ours. And it has well-resourced libraries and librarians in every school. The City of Falls Church, Virginia, with 2,200 students in four schools is in a similar situation and it has a budget of $37,603,600. The United States Department of Defense Education Activity has 84,803 students in schools worldwide. The current fiscal year has it operating with $1.44 billion and it has good libraries and librarians in every school. These are school systems with lower per-pupil spending than DCPS. Looking around the country at state capitals one sees a far greater commitment to school libraries. Helena, Montana has librarians in every school as does Jefferson City, Missouri and Olympia, Washington.
Bismarck, North Dakota has a librarian and aide in every school. In fact this city of 16,000 has a comparable number of library staff working in its schools as does DCPS!
Clearly good school libraries are not beyond us in economic terms. Our school system’s leadership has made a choice, a bad choice, in not investing in school libraries. And the cost of their indifference toward them is borne by students and taxpayer. Students are being deprived of a critically-need pedagogic tool and taxpayers risk having to pay for a modernization that parents do not embrace because the schools are incomplete. In spite of the fact that Anacostia High School just opened after a $62 million modernization, its new library does not have a single book. The old collection was lost and the chancellor says there is no money to buy a new one. When H.D. Woodson High School students returned to their brand-new $110 million building, they came into a structure with a library containing 450 volumes. That figure should be 10,000. Again, most of its collection had been lost during construction and, again, the chancellor says there is no money to bolster its collection. And Eastern High School, which was the beneficiary of a $74 million modernization, had half its collection lost during storage at Shaw at Garnet-Patterson Middle School. The average age of the books in Eastern’s small library is 1980.
School libraries do not depend on school closures. Rather they require a both a recognition of their importance and the competence to administer properly. We have one of the worst school library programs of any large school district in the United States. Many of the schools are either bereft of books or librarians or both. And that is by choice. The council has the ability to fix this situation. I hope it will urge the chairman to hold a hearing Councilman Evans’ bill requiring a librarian in every school. And I hope it will embrace a more fulsome solution to the school library crisis. We have a $140 million budget surplus. The hole that the school libraries are in is of such a depth that it’s hard to imagine the chancellor ever committing the resources from her budget to adequately dig them out. They need a $23 million school library-version of the Manhattan Project. Right now they are literally on the verge of extinction. We have far fewer librarians than we did in 2000. We have a smaller number of students served by a library media center than in 1954, according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.
I’ve attached a link to a proposal that was printed in The Washington Post. It outlines how such a sum would be spent.
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