April 19, 2018

A Win for All: With ESSA, Libraries Make Solid Gains | Editorial

RebeccaWebEdit2015Librarians have much to be proud of in the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The long-awaited rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, most recently also known as No Child Left Behind) sailed though both the Senate and House to arrive in front of President Obama, making it one of the few signs of functional bipartisanship in a rough year for getting stuff done on the hill. As the president signed ESSA into law on December 10, he referred to its arrival as “a Christmas miracle.”

It certainly felt like a miracle and for librarians perhaps even more so. Years of advocacy had paid off with the integration throughout of language about school libraries and librarians—validating the important contribution they make to student learning and enabling funding to support their development. Any legislation of this scale is sure to have trade-offs, and there is much work ahead to realize the potential (for more on this, see my January editorial for sister publication School Library Journal, “A New Start”). However, the school library element alone promises to result in better schools.

The inclusion of school libraries in ESSA also registers a new note about libraries in education that deepens the all-too-critical connection to learning that we’ve all known libraries to have. “In the big picture of education,” Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association Washington Office (ALAWASH), told me days after the law was signed,“libraries are a part of it. We are no longer the book depository. We are no longer the sideshow or the entertainment. We are [one] of the key elements.”

While this is a win for school libraries, it is also a win for all libraries. The entire library ecosystem is boosted by this victory.

“Having a strong, vibrant, effective school library program has a direct impact on public libraries and academic libraries,” said Sheketoff. “Students that go to a school or a school system with an effective school library program arrive at college ready to learn. Just as you need preparation before you get to kindergarten, you need preparation before you [enter] college…. Kids that get to college without that experience spend their first year in remediation.”

The benefit extends to public libraries as well. With “a good school library and a good public library, your public library experience is much better,” said Sheketoff. In places without a school librarian, she added, “public librarians are being forced into doing teaching that they are not prepared to do.” School librarians have skills and training that differ from those of public librarians. Serving youngsters without the complement of a school librarian leaves public librarians in a bind, as they “don’t have the time or the resources to give those students what they need.”

This win also carries a strong reminder of the power of the library network. “From an advocacy perspective, it tells libraries that when every type of library joins in an effort, they can have extraordinary success,” Sheketoff said. “We’ve seen, over the past year, every [ALA] division president step up,” engaging their various constituencies in support of ESSA. “The leadership of the associations…have really come through for school libraries.”

All for one.

At the heart of this labor was the ALAWASH team, with Sheketoff at the helm, proving the value of that vital lobbying voice for libraries. “I feel a great sense of accomplishment, and this is why I love working for ALA,” said Sheketoff. “I made a difference. What we worked on is going to improve the lives of students for years to come.”

It is worthwhile to take a step back and appreciate just what went into making this miracle happen. Congratulations to the leaders who put their hearts and heads into the strategy behind this effort over the years. Congratulations to advocates at all library levels who worked in concert at key moments and took personal action. Congratulations to the major political partners who turned their insight into the value of libraries into transformative policy.

The ESSA win is an excellent example of what can be attained by the political process and an opportunity to reflect on the patience required to move something forward over time and maintain commitment, building relationships so they come together at the right moment.RMsignatureWEB

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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  1. Cathy Sutton says:

    Perhaps it can be seen as a victory of sorts that the terms “school libraries” and “school librarians” were at least included in this new bill but as an actual school librarian of 27 years I really see no big wins here for my profession. Yes, school librarians are included (along with a long list of other school employees including paraprofessionals) when ESEA describes grants and supports that MAY be offered to support literacy. And yes, ESEA funding MAY be directed to school libraries, but this is just one choice among many of where schools and districts can direct funds. As witnesses during recent cut backs in education funding, when school library funding is a choice and money is tight, often the choice is made to put the money elsewhere. Also, while ESEA does mention of the importance of quality school libraries there are no specifics on what constitutes a such a program and no specific financial support or incentives for schools to maintain these. Nor are there any provisions that actually require school libraries to staffed by professional librarians. For those of us in the trenches, this bill simply does not go far enough.

    I currently work in a school system in a very affluent suburb of Indianapolis. Although technically hired as a middle school library media specialist, I’m required to teach classes five periods a day and am only given about an hour a day to develop and maintain a “quality library program.” All our elementary school libraries are staffed with low paid paraprofessionals. Only the high school librarian is full time. This is quickly becoming the norm in school systems across our country. The school librarian will soon be extinct and no one seems to care. So forgive me if I see nothing to crow about with the passage of ESEA.