We think we’ve learned the important lessons, but how quickly we forget.
Americans spent 2018 and 2019 learning from teachers as, ten years after the Great Recession, they launched strikes from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Arizona to Kentucky to North Carolina to Virginia to California to Illinois. States had slashed funding for public schools as tax revenues collapsed during the 2008 recession, and after a decade, the majority of states were still spending less on public education than they did before the collapse. Teachers struck to protest the deplorable conditions in which their students were being expected to learn: outrageous class sizes of 35 and 40 student along with shortages of counselors, school social workers, school psychologists, certified librarians, and school nurses. In Los Angeles, Oakland, and Chicago, striking teachers exposed our society’s absence of political will to fund the urban school districts that serve our poorest children.
Here we are now, because of COVID-19, in the midst of another recession. And again today, states are cutting per-pupil basic aid for public schools as tax revenues collapse. But somehow all the medical challenges of the pandemic and the attendant broader economic problems have blinded too many of our leaders to the coming crisis for our schools as budget cuts will again mean the losses of teachers, counselors, school psychologists, school social workers, certified librarians, and school nurses. The meaning of these losses will, of course, become clearer once schools reopen without these essential professionals.
An Education Week article about the pending loss of school personnel caught my eye last week. The headline screams bad news, As COVID-19 Budget Cuts Loom, Relevance of School Librarians Put to the Test. I suppose I noticed this article because it seems to contradict reality. How could school librarians ever be considered irrelevant?
My own children are now adults, but when they were young, children’s librarians mattered very much to our family. These were the librarians at our elementary and middle school and at the public library in our community. I remember all of their names: Carol Lee May, Elizabeth Shriver, Elizabeth Bellamy, Nancy Bain, and Cam Horvath. There was also Ruth Hadlow, who served for 57 years as the children’s librarian at the Cleveland Public Library downtown. On the occasions we made the trip to the downtown library, Miss Hadlow asked my children all about the books they loved: then she would bring out other books to stimulate their particular interests. Once when my children were very small, she went to the library’s archives and brought us two well-worn early books by Russell Hoban—Herman the Loser about a little boy who worried because he seemed to misplace everything entrusted to him, and Charlie the Tramp about a young beaver who discovers his true dam-building and home-building vocation even as he sets out to pursue his dream of becoming a tramp.
School librarians help children find books they will love and also help parents know about books their children might enjoy. We live near Lake Erie, and a librarian helped my son discover Paddle to the Sea, a child’s book about the Great Lakes. A librarian shared Elizabeth Enright’s Gone-Away Lake with my daughter. By sharing Brian Jacques’ Redwall and its sequels—a whole series of suspenseful, high interest and very difficult fantasy novels—a school librarian helped my third-grade son and all his friends start to read hard books. And a librarian recommended our children’s all time favorite book, Russell Hoban’s How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen. On more than one occasion a school librarian presented programs for parents about books children would love to read. Children’s librarians made sure there was something wonderful to read at our house on hot summer afternoons and filled our evenings with read-aloud material all the way through elementary school. My children and their peers in our public schools were so lucky to have well trained librarians ensuring they would love to read.
The new story in Education Week explains: “From California to Pennsylvania, school librarians are on edge as district and school leaders across the country seek ways to cut back expenses amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. ‘Each day, we kind of hold our breath,’ said Debra Kachel, a researcher and advocate for the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association—a librarians’ group in a state where at least 20 districts have already proposed library cuts. ‘A lot of these districts are informing librarians that they will be furloughed.”
The Education Week story continues: “The cutbacks come even as school librarians have stepped up in unprecedented ways during the COVID-19 school closures—using social media to provide students with emotional support; giving book recommendations; organizing poetry readings; brokering book access for students; guiding teachers through a complicated web of free online resources; providing tech-support; and helping students navigate a deluge of online news and misinformation…. In the decade since the last recession one in five full-time school librarian jobs were lost… Districts serving high numbers of poor and minority students were particularly hard hit. Other educational positions rebounded when the economy recovered, but the ranks of school librarians did not… The nation’s poorest and most diverse schools already employ the fewest librarians in the country, according to a 2016 National Education Association report. Districts that did not lose a librarian from 2005 to 2015 were 75 percent white, and the districts that lost the most librarians had predominantly minority student populations….”
Congressional passage of the HEROES Act—a coronavirus relief bill which includes funding to support public schools in this era as state budgets are collapsing—is essential when Congress returns from its current two week recess. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act on May 15. Senator Mitch McConnell has encouraged the U.S. Senate just to wait and see what is needed. But schools are likely to open in mid-August and Congress won’t return from recess until the third week of July. Congress needs to ensure that despite a serious economic recession, public schools will provide not only small classes but also essentials like professionally staffed school libraries and media centers.
Ironically schools continue to lose certified school librarians in an era when, thanks to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, our society tests students compulsively every year in “language arts” and then uses the scores to judge the quality of each school. And ironically, as librarians’ jobs are threatened, my state and lots of other states persist in holding back in third grade any student who cannot score “proficient” on the third-grade language arts test. Policymakers seem to value standardized tests in reading, but at the same time they fail to provide enough funding for the kind of programming that turns young children into enthusiastic readers.