November 20, 2017

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School Libraries May Benefit from Congressional Budget Deal

The $1.012 trillion spending bill unveiled last night by House and Senate leaders, if approved, will restore most of the critically needed federal education funding—including that for Head Start, Title I, and special education programs—that was dramatically cut during last year’s sequestration. The boon to poorer school districts could ease budget squeezes that have, in many states, forced the elimination of school librarians in recent months, education experts tell School Library Journal.

CapitolDome_money“Districts have to fund special education regardless if the money is available from the federal government or not,” explains Mary Kusler, director of government relations for the National Education Association (NEA), a union that represents approximately 3 million teachers on education issues. “So if the federal government isn’t paying their share, that impacts available resources elsewhere in the school building, which, of course, impacts school libraries.”

Federal education funding, even if it’s just enough to restore sequestered Title I and special education monies, would certainly have at least an indirect impact on schools at the state and district level, says Gail Dickinson, president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL). Whether this translates to an investment in the school library media specialists so often on the chopping block, however, remains to be seen, she says, noting that districts still face “hard choices.”

Due to tight state and city budgets since the recession, the pressures of which have been compounded by sequestration, some school districts around the country have been pressured to save funds by eliminating librarians, media specialists, and library technology coordinators, such as communities in Colorado, California, Vermont, Utah, Michigan, Texas, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

“When you look at [the federal budget] specifically from a school library perspective, the work that school librarians and media resource specialists do in terms of providing the pure functional education to children but also the net adds to the other curriculum being taught in the general classroom—that connection is sometimes what suffers the most in a tight budget situation,” Kusler tells SLJ.

“So as much funding can be provided to schools by the federal government to the students who are most in need, it alleviates some of the pressure on local school district budgets to fund other critical priorities such as school libraries.”

Fortunately, the fiscal year 2014 Omnibus Appropriations Bill dedicates significant funds to these students, restoring 86 percent of both the Title I funds for poor districts and the funds for special education that were cut in March 2013 during sequester. That amounts to $14.4 billion in Title I funds, an increase of $625 million, to support services for an estimated 1 million more students. About 90 percent of the nation’s school districts receive some Title I funding. And for special education, the bill sets aside $11.473 billion, $498 million above 2013 levels.

The bill also includes appropriations for Head Start of $8.6 billion, an increase of $1.025 billion over current funding levels, which includes $500 million to expand Early Head Start for children and families from before birth through age 3 as well as child care partnerships connected to the program.

Behind closed doors, legislators had been hashing out the specifics of a proposal by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis, that would have restored 87 percent across the board to all of education’s sequester cuts. (The implementation of those cuts was delayed by a budget deal in mid-December.) Negotiations have been extensive as stakeholders have jockeyed for appropriations not just for education-related initiatives but for all of the nation’s discretionary spending on such programs as healthcare, transportation, food aid, housing, job creation, and agriculture.

Although the bill that Congress finally hammered out last night does not restore all of the nation’s education programs to pre-sequester levels—or even to the 87 percent “best case scenario” that the NEA had hoped for—the organization is very pleased.

“We’re feeling really good this morning,” Kusler tells SLJ. “We believe the bill responds to our pleas to put students first.” Kusler also notes that the bill represents “a focused Congressional investment in the programs that most directly impact disadvantaged children.”

President Obama’s wish to dedicate $750 million for universal preschool is not included in the bill, but it does include $250 million for Race to the Top preschool funding, which will go to states seeking to develop, enhance, or expand their own preschool programs. The bill shows a clear priority towards many different types of early childhood education funding, which the NEA calls “significant.”

“Despite the fact that we don’t see an investment in a separate stand-alone program, when you put all the pieces together, this bill as a whole invests very heavily in early childhood education,” Kusler says, adding that this investment in early literacy will pay off in spades down the line.

Not just classroom teachers but school librarians and media specialists, too, Kusler notes, should be pleased with this bill because of that focus. “The better off we do on the front end, the better off we’re going to be when these kids are reaching elementary, middle, and high school.”

More than 70,000 kids lost access to Head Start last year due to sequestration, and another 57,000 lost access during the government shutdown, according to NEA. “Those are children who are never going to get another second chance at preschool, and so to see such a strong investment up front in early childhood in our view is recognition of the importance of that early investment,” Kusler says.

“Sequester does not work,” Kusler adds, noting that the bill makes, “an important statement about the harm that the sequester has caused [PDF] to children and the need to ensure that every child, no matter who they are no matter where they come from, has access to a great public education.”

Legislators in the House are expected to debate the bill—which funds the government through September 30, 2014—until Thursday, with it moving through the Senate on Friday and Saturday.

In the meantime, “[We] really laud the appropriations committee for working so very hard on a tough bill with tough funding constraints to make sure that students were going to come out ahead,” the NEA’s Kusler says. “We recognize that students are being put first.”

Karyn M. Peterson About Karyn M. Peterson

Karyn M. Peterson (kpeterson@mediasourceinc.com) is a former News Editor ofSLJ.

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