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Sunday Reflections: Classroom Libraries are a Stark Reminder that Not All Schools are Created Equal

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Tomorrow I will get up and take my daughters once again to their first day of school. The Teen will be starting her Sophomore year of high school and Thing 2 will be going into the fourth grade. So like most parents, I’m feeling reflective and contemplative. I am, as they say, having the feels.

There are pictures going around Twitter of people setting up their classrooms and stuffing them to the gills with a wide variety of books for kids to pick out. These pictures are being hailed as examples of good teachers who create rich learning environments that inspire reading. How can kids not want to read in a classroom that looks like this?

Let me start by saying this: I agree, this is an amazing looking classroom that would definitely encourage reading.

But most teachers and school districts can’t afford this.

My oldest child started her public school education in the state of Ohio in a city that is struggling financially in the year 2008. Here’s a thing you should know about the state of Ohio, for 20 years they have been supporting public schools with a financial model that was deemed unconstitutional. That’s right, the way that the state of Ohio funds public education was declared unconstitutional 20 years ago and they changed exactly nothing. This funding model has a lot to do with local property taxes, which means that poor kids living in poor neighborhoods go to poorly funded schools while rich kids living in rich areas go to richly funded schools. We were a poor family living in a poor neighborhood going to poorly funded schools. In fact, for the last few years that district has given free breakfast and free lunch to every single student because more than 80% of the students qualified.

One of the surrounding districts closed their school libraries due to a lack of funding. Those students will never get to know the joy of popping into their school library during the day to pick up a book to read. And in a world where the research has shown time and time again that school librarians help ensure higher student success rates, these schools have closed their school library doors. These students are starting their education journey at a severe disadvantage.

Poorer districts tend also to have lower paid teachers. This can also mean that they have higher teacher turnover as teachers leave to go to higher paid districts. But you know one thing that lower paid teachers in lower funded public schools can’t do? Set up a classroom library full of books and books of shelves. Those books have to come from somewhere and they cost money. To have a wide variety of new, engaging titles to line the walls like this, you would need a lot of money from either the district or your own personal bank account. I admire any teacher or librarian who wants to invest personally in this way, but I’m also not going to shame any teacher who can’t or chooses not to.

Teachers and librarians work in service oriented professions, and we are asked to sacrifice a lot for the noble good. We’re supposed to care for our students, patrons and communities so much that we are willing to make personal sacrifices that we don’t ask other professionals to make in order to be successful at our jobs. Our unwillingness to make those sacrifices are often interpreted as not being good at our jobs or lacking compassion. Failure to make the noble sacrifice is seen as a negative, whereas I would argue that being asked to make the noble sacrifice to begin with is the true negative. I fully and proudly maintain that everyone should refuse to make those personal financial sacrifices so that the public understood what the cost of a real, quality public education truly was and agreed to fund it. Teachers and librarians deserve to make adequate salaries and students deserve to go to stably and fully funded schools.

I’m tired of already underpaid teachers and librarians being asked to take one for the team because no one wants to truly support and invest in our children. Public education is an investment. It’s an investment in our children, it’s an investment in our here and now and it’s an investment in our future. The return on investment is high: we get educated citizens who take care of us and our country. Failure to invest in public education has other disastrous and expensive results as we end up with higher rates of crime and lower health rates which means higher costs for incarceration, health care, and more. We end up paying one way or another, and I think we should pay up front by investing in better education as opposed to paying in the end by building more jails and trying to find ways to solve health, mental health and opioid crisis.

I am a public librarian and I have never worked in a school library. I do, however, know a lot of school librarians and I know that some of them barely have money to buy new books during the course of a school year. It is not unusual for a school library budget to be as low as $3,000 per year. If you break that down into a discount rate of about $10.00 per book, that’s roughly 300 books year. I most cases this would not even mean 1 new book per student per year, depending on the size of the school. My high school had a graduating class 330 students which means that with a budget of $3,000 per year at roughly $10.00 a book, my high school wouldn’t even have been able to afford 1 new book per year for the graduating senior class, let alone the entire school.

As this new school year begins we have already seen a ton of Donors Choose requests asking for donations to help teachers to fund projects in their classrooms, asking to buy books for book discussion groups, and asking for money to buy books to place on almost empty school library shelves. These requests for funds get tweeted and retweeted and we celebrate each other when they are filled because look at us, we’re doing a great job supporting one another. And while I appreciate that a thing like Donors Choose exists and that these teachers are getting the funding they need through it, I resent that we live in a world where this has to happen. It’s not a good thing, it’s a statement of how much our public education system lacks funding. This is not stable funding, this is not a solid investment in our children, it’s a patchwork attempt to fill gaps that is dependent on being seen and the generosity of those who see your request. It’s a hope, it’s a request, it’s a pleading with the general public to fill a financial need in a world that has abandoned their children by refusing to invest realistically, solidly, stably, and consistently in public education.

Last week alone I read stories about someone having to get donated sick leave to fight their cancer, an employer who bought their employee a car so they didn’t have to walk to work, etc. What if, instead, we demand that that employer pay their employee a livable wage so that they could buy their own car and consistently feed their family? What if we demanded that all employees no matter how many hours they worked received benefits such as sick leave and vacation time? What if we demanded more of each other. What if we choose to truly invest in livable wages, public education, work/life balance, and general overall health?

What if we demanded that every school was properly funded and teachers were adequately compensated and we truly invested in and supported public schools? What if we had real school library budgets and classroom library budgets? What if we didn’t have to beg each other for books?

I do not write this post to shame any teacher setting up a classroom library in any way. In truth, those classrooms look excellent. I imagine as a student it would be awesome and inspiring to sit in one of those classroom. I do, however, want to make sure we aren’t using these classroom as a barometer to shame other classroom teachers, because those classroom libraries are not cheap and there are a lot of reasons why every classroom doesn’t look like those. Actually, there is one main reason, and that’s money.

As we go into this school year, it’s important that we all remember that not all schools are created equal. Our children aren’t all being given the same opportunities, the same resources, or the same investment to achieve. Children born into poverty face a lot of obstacles that are designed to keep them there, one of which is a poorly funded public education. They will rely on the generosity of strangers and Donors Choose campaigns to meet even their most basic education needs in their school systems because they live in areas where adults can’t or choose not to invest in them.

Classroom libraries are awesome, but until we live in a world in which every classroom can look like those pictures, we must continue to advocate for better and consistent funding for public education. Our children desperately need us to.

Comments

  1. I would like to share that as a primary school librarian in Oklahoma for 1.5 years I was given no budget for new books either of those years. The only way I could buy books was if I sold books at book fairs and earned money that could only be used with scholastic. It never seemed fair that I had to sell low income kids books in order to buy books for them to borrow for free. I hope the system gets better soon as I miss working with the kids but I couldn’t afford to keep doing it.

  2. We design children’s books, and I hope they end up in libraries, getting worn out from use by lots of children! Since school funding is a local issue, let’s all pay attention to the school board and other local elections. Money spent on our children is an investment in the future, our public servants need to know how important that is.

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