President Obama has signed S. 1177, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA, the latest rewrite of the long-standing Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESEA). It’s the first piece of federal education legislation in over 50 years to provide revenue for school libraries to enhance services and resources. The bill sailed through the House on December 2 with a vote of 359 to 64 and passed in the Senate on December 9 with a vote of 85 to 12. President Obama, calling the bipartisan agreement a “Christmas miracle,” signed it into law on December 10.
“All-important language” secured
First and foremost, the definition of “specialized instructional support personnel” in ESEA is now updated to include “school librarians.” “While this new definition appears deep in the document, it is the underpinning of all the other changes, and it lays the groundwork for new attitudes in state and district leadership,” says Dorcas Hand, library advocate, and director of libraries at Annunciation Orthodox School in Houston.
The importance of that updated definition can scarcely be overstated, providing support beyond the practical. “You can know you’re doing the right thing, but affirmation that what you do is important matters,” says Sara Kelly Johns, school librarian, consultant, and American Association of School Librarians (AASL) past president. “A lot of what we do very well can be invisible. The integration of meaningful tech into teacher curriculum begins and ends, very often, with the school librarian. But the school board doesn’t know this.” That all-important language gives lead agencies direction to spend funds on school library media programs—which you can’t have without school librarians.
Another provision is the Supporting Effective School Library Programs (SKILLS Act), an authorization for developing and enhancing effective school library programs, including professional development for school librarians and support for up-to-date books and materials.
The law also authorizes states to use funds to support the instructional services provided by effective school library programs, plus a bipartisan amendment U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) wrote with Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS). The latter encourages school districts to address access to effective school library programs as part of their Title 1 plans and through their professional development programs.
An overview of all the library provisions found in the Every Student Succeeds Act can be found at the American Library Association site.
What’s the bottom line for school libraries?
For many, the upshot is clear. “The importance of libraries, particularly school libraries, is finally being recognized in the educational system,” notes Misty N. Jones, California Library Association president.
Over the years, the United States has seen huge budget cuts to school libraries, resulting in many being understaffed, lacking in resources, or in some cases, being forced to close. “The passing of this bill increases the chances that there will be a library with a certified librarian in every school, ensuring that students are given every opportunity to succeed,” says Jones.
To so many, those improved odds don’t come a second too soon. “What many people don’t know is that in most states, school libraries are optional,” says Vandy Pacetti-Donelson, a library media specialist in Auburndale, FL. “Here in Florida, the statute only says the school will have a library media ‘program.’ I could hire a librarian to show up once a month with a box of books and call it a program. And Florida is not alone.”
Some library advocates are particularly excited about Title 1, Improving Basic Programs Operated by State and Local Education Agencies. It states that “LEAs must develop plans to implement federal education activities.” New provisions authorize local plans to include a description of how the LEA will assist schools in developing effective school library programs, to provide students opportunities to develop digital literacy skills and improve academic achievement. “This requirement moves school librarians back to the main stage, although it will take time to get larger roles,” says Hand.
A return of control to states
“The big message with this bill is that states have more power,” said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy in Education Week.
Conditional state waivers—meaning states can waive certain provisions of the law in exchange for adopting something else— is barred by ESSA. States can now set their own education goals for schools. Washington, D.C. can no longer require anything from states’ teacher evaluation plans, including the use of test scores.
The law does, however, require states to adopt “challenging” academic standards—though not the hotly contested Common Core State Standards—that align with entrance requirements for credit-bearing coursework in the states’ higher education systems. That’s one of the main differences between ESSA and the ESEA reauthorization the Obama administration released in 2010, called A Blueprint for Reform.
Help for the “have-nots”
Other tenets of the law include holding all students (“regardless of zip code,” notes U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan) to high academic standards and preparing them for college or career and affording greater access to high-quality preschool. Indeed, one of the biggest boons of the legislation is “that it specifically addresses low-income children, children of color, English language learners, homeless students, and students in rural schools,” says Jones.
Kelly Johns couldn’t agree more. “All students benefit. The digital divide is getting wider and wider all the time,” she says. “This is giving equal access to information skills and excellent resources. At too many schools, it sure depends on the kid’s life circumstances, or what teacher they happen to get.”
The latest incarnation of an old act
ESSA reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and is intended to fix the broken Bush-era No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law that was signed nearly 14 years ago.
“This represents a significant improvement [over NCLB],” says Senator Reed, a champion of the provision that improves access to effective school library programs. “Our challenge and our responsibility is to create and support learning environments that enable young people to hone their talents, discover their skills, and pursue their passions. This bipartisan education bill advances those fundamental goals,” Reed said in an emailed statement.
But “We have too many people who think this is something new,” notes Pacetti-Donelson. “ESEA is something that is renewed over and over.” Renewal time is when legislators get the chance to change it, and that’s what just happened. “It used to be called No Child Left Behind, but nobody wants to say we’re renewing NCLB,” she adds.
Kelly Johns also underscores the cyclical nature of the bill. “We started ramping up advocacy efforts in 2008. We knew it would renewed. We knew that it was our prize chance to get school library language in. If we didn’t, we were losing an opportunity we may not get again for a long time.”
Still, no time to rest
AASL—in a well-timed move—is reexamining its student learning standards. The standards will be reassessed and strengthened for where we are today, according to Kelly Johns. Having affirmation in the form of ESSA will give AASL even more reason to push those new standards out. “We’re going to do it, and we’re going to do it well,” says Kelly Johns.
Eventually, this act will come up for renewal again. “And we will have to be standing there again to keep the [library-specific] language in,” says Pacetti-Donelson. “That’s why we have to be on our feet and mobile.” She recalls walking the halls in Washington, DC and finding that legislators sometimes don’t know what the library means to their own child’s education. “One senator mentioned his child went to a particular public school in Miami,” Pacetti-Donelson recalls. “He didn’t know that his child only gets 10 minutes of library instruction a month, because that school has only a part-time librarian. Worse, he didn’t seem to understand why that arrangement was detrimental to his child.”
It’s that kind of relative ignorance about the importance of qualified school librarians and high-quality library programs that means library advocates can’t let up. “Specific language that includes librarians must be part of any education law,” Pacetti-Donelson insists. “Who does he think teaches kids to use the computer? And Google? The English teacher teaches writing. The reading teaches imparts the ability to use reading skills. It’s the librarian who helps children evaluate content and choose good literature.” Pacetti-Donelson wants to see all of us “taking a seat at the table, or tweeting those at the table, to remind them what their kids might miss.”