New York City’s librarians, teachers, and parents are prepping for a major battle with the city’s Department of Education (DOE) on the heels of the DOE’s official request to the New York State Education Department (NYSED) last week that the city’s public schools be exempted from state minimum staffing requirements for certified school library media specialists. The DOE’s move follows years of quiet noncompliance with the state mandate, despite two petitions from the local teachers union to the State Commissioner of Education.
The union—the United Federation of Teachers (UFT)—and the New York Library Association (NYLA) both say they strongly oppose the DOE’s variance request, which, if the state approved it, would allow NYC schools “to provide equivalent library services to students at secondary schools in alternative ways,” according to a copy of the request obtained by School Library Journal.
“’Equivalent library services’ is really slippery. It’s the most dangerous action a district could take,” says librarian Sara Kelly Johns, NYLA’s president-elect. ”It is not equitable,” she tells SLJ. “We can’t set aside the requirements for school librarians. Not as policy.”
Tom Dunn, director of communications for NYSED, confirms that the state received the DOE’s request, but says the state would not comment until it had prepared its response to the city.
Rumors in recent weeks that the DOE’s request might be forthcoming have spurred NYC library advocates to rally around this issue, according to Alison Gendar, a media rep for UFT. Gendar shared with SLJ a weekly bulletin to city principals, dated mid-June, in which Richard Hasenyager, the city DOE’s director of library services, asked principals to provide information that would help the city department put together its waiver/variance request to the state.
Hasenyager declined to speak to SLJ for this article, but Gendar notes that the UFT, upon seeing the principals’ bulletin, was initially “surprised that the DOE would seek to institutionalize” its chronic librarian understaffing rather than attempt to strategize solutions to the situation.
The UFT has been waiting for months for a response from State Commissioner Dr. John King on the second of its petitions, which it filed late last year in hopes that the state would be able to enforce the city’s compliance with Commissioner’s Regulation 91.2. The rule stipulates that all NYC secondary schools must employ at least a part-time certified school library media specialist, and schools with more than 700 students must employ a full-time media specialist. According to the UFT, city officials admit that more than half of the city’s secondary schools are in violation of this mandate.
One of the biggest challenges in enforcing Regulation 91.2, Gendar says, is that the Commissioner typically issues his decision after the end of the school year, making it moot. This time around, however, “we are considering our legal options to make the Commissioner rule in time for it to be meaningful,” Gendar says. “We have to wait for the state to come back with some kind of decision and then…that will clear the roadway for going to the (state) Supreme Court with this.”
In the meantime, NYLA is joining forces with other advocacy groups—including Urban Librarians Unite (ULU), the Alliance for a Quality Education (AQE), and Make the Road New York—in endorsing a planned local rally for parents and community members tomorrow, August 21, at 10 a.m. The event, organized by New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, will be a parental “Read In” on the steps of NYC’s Department of Education headquarters. In addition, NYLA has prepared its own opposition statement [PDF] addressed directly to Commissioner King, while Christian Zabriskie, ULU founder—and 2012 Library Journal Mover & Shaker—has created a MoveOn.org petition for the cause, also addressed to Dr. King. And AQE has created its own petition to drum up more opposition among local advocates.
On the national level, the American Association of School Librarians, the American Library Association’s school library division, is standing by to offer support, according to its president, Gail Dickinson. Dickinson adds that she wonders how NYC teachers will meet the new Common Core State Standards without librarians. “[It] will be extremely difficult,” she tells SLJ. “Because of technology, we can take students to higher levels of digitally literacy than we ever could before, and they can search out so much more information, but along with that, the need for them to be able to filter that information—make judgments about that information—to create new knowledge is astounding.”
She adds, “Without school librarians, I worry about the digital divide between those students who arrive at college having had a school librarian who [taught] them the skills that they need, and those college freshman who have not had access to those skills. I suspect we’ll see them floundering.”
NYLA’s Sara Kelly Johns agrees. In NYC, she notes, “there’s not equitable access to librarians who can provide high quality research working collaboratively with teachers to meet the resource and instructional needs of students. [There’s] not an equitable approach to developing college and career ready students in every school. Students know how to search but not to research. It’s just not fair. NYC students deserve and need a certified librarian in every school. NYC has work to do.”