June 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Update: ESEA: ALA and Advocacy Community Urging School Library Supporters to Act Now

(UPDATE: March 19, 2015 at 4:40 p.m. ET) With the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, school librarians and education stakeholders have a pivotal opportunity for school library funding to become part of federal education policy for years to come. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which has been charged with overhauling ESEA, has been gearing up for a committee vote on the version of the bill as early as the week of April 13, when the Senate reconvenes, according to Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Washington Office.

It’s been more than ten years since the last reauthorization of ESEA when Congress passed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2001. Congress attempted—and failed—to update the bill in 2007. While political parties and interest groups have varying agendas for the reauthorization, it’s widely agreed that ESEA is in need of reauthorization—and legislation cannot proceed until the Senate HELP Committee comes up with a bipartisan bill that can pass both houses of Congress.


Although efforts to include dedicated funding for school libraries in ESEA have been made in the past, this year ALA has been definitive in leading the campaign for school library funding and programs in ESEA’s reauthorization. Sheketoff tells SLJ she has been working closely with the HELP Committee to garner a commitment from HELP chairman Senator Lamar Alexander (R.-TN) and ranking member Patty Murray (D.-WA) to include dedicated funding for school libraries in the bill; however, as of March 18, Sheketoff says she cannot confirm whether school library funding has made it into the base bill. If not, she says that there will be other opportunities for its inclusion. However, she stresses, this is a critical time for advocates to contact their U.S. senators to demonstrate that there is widespread support for federally-mandated school library programs.

On March 19, a coalition of over 20 education leaders joined ALA in signing a joint letter addressed to HELP Committee chairman Senator Alexander and ranking member Senator Murray to ask that Congress incorporate the SKILLS (Strengthening Kids’ Interest in Learning and Libraries) Act (S. 312), a specific amendment about dedicated federal school library funding, in ESEA’s reauthorization. Some of the players belonging to the education coalition include: Junior Library Guild, Scholastic, EBSCO, Baker & Taylor, OverDrive, and Booklist Publications, among others.

The road to reauthorization

ALA is taking its cue for reform and reauthorization from Washington. On January 12, 2015, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called on Congress to replace “NCLB with a new ESEA that takes advantage of the lessons of the last several years and builds on the progress that America’s students and educators have worked hard to achieve.” Around the same time, President Obama requested an additional $2.7 billion in ESEA funding for Fiscal Year 2016, reports “Homeroom: The Official Blog of the U.S. Department of Education.”

“There’s more of a feeling that something might happen [this time],” says American Association of School Librarians (AASL) president Terri Grief, a high school librarian in Paducah, KY. Amendments to include dedicated school library funding in ESEA have been attempted in 2007, 2011, and 2014, according to Sheketoff. With ALA’s involvement and guidance, Grief (along with other advocates) has actively reached out to AASL’s network to urge members to contact their senators’ Washington office to include dedicated school library funding in ESEA’s reauthorization.

While both houses must come up with their versions of the bill, most of ALA’s advocacy efforts have been focused on the Senate. This year in late January, Senator Alexander presented a discussion draft of ESEA to HELP Committee members, and ALA responded with its comments soon after. “There were a few mentions of school libraries [in the draft],” says Sheketoff, whose response letter urged the inclusion of the SKILLS Act (S. 312).

On February 19, ALA launched an email campaign “Take Action for Libraries,” informing members and stakeholders about the SKILLS Act and asking them to contact their senators about co-sponsoring the SKILLS Act to show support for federal school library program funding. “I sent [this] email notice to the Kentucky Library Association and the Kentucky Public Library Association—who then sent it to the Trustees of the Kentucky Public Library Association,” Grief tells SLJ.

Thirty-year school library advocate Deb Kachel, co-chair of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association (PSLA), says that she shared ALA Washington’s campaign with the PSLA and her personal listserv. Using information from ALA’s District Dispatch February 27 post titled “School Libraries Can’t Afford to Wait,” Kachel tailored her listserv email to include: 1) what to do—contact your state’s senators’ Washington office(s) if he and/or she is on the HELP Committee; and 2) what to say:

State that you would like him/her to support a version of the reauthorization of ESEA that:

  1. [Mandates] that all public schools have a school library staffed by at least one state-licensed school librarian.
  2. Provides dedicated funding for effective school library programs, and;
  3. Allows state and local professional development funds to be used for recruiting and training school librarians.

(Make sure you provide your name, address, and zip code.)

Sheketoff adds that even if your state’s senators aren’t on the HELP Committee, contact them anyhow, and tell them that you support funding for school library programs in the reauthorization of ESEA and wish for them to co-sponsor the SKILLS Act (S. 312). (Include your name, address, and zip code.)

At present, there is a lack of critical mass in support. “I’ve had many meetings in the Senate recently,” writes Sheketoff in “District Dispatch” dated February 27, “ and none of the congressional staff members I’ve met with have heard from any library supporters.”

Kachel worries about school librarians on her listserv getting “advocacy fatigue.” “I don’t know how many emails I can send out before they think—her again?” Regardless, advocacy works, she says.

Advocate—then DO IT SOME MORE

Senator Robert Casey (D.-PA), a member of the HELP Committee, recently met with a group of Pennsylvania Parent Teacher Association (PTA) members in Washington, DC, Kachel shares over email. During the visit, the subject of school libraries came up, and Senator Casey informed the group that his office was inundated with over 85 emails from Pennsylvania school librarians regarding ESEA and the inclusion of dedicated school library funding. While the emails may be a drop in the bucket for what is needed to sway the HELP Committee, they got Senator Casey’s attention, who said he was “very impressed.”

ESEA’s reauthorization could take months—or longer, forewarns Sheketoff. After the HELP Committee meets the week of April 13, the bill has to be marked up with amendments, then voted on. If it passes committee vote, then it must be scheduled for debate on the Senate floor, which could take months. Should both versions of the bill pass in each house of Congress, then each side will appoint a representative to conference on the two bills and come up with a single version. (And still, it must be voted on through each house after that.)

The slow pace could be a silver lining—there is time for advocacy. Encouraged by the feedback about PSLA librarians emailing Senator Casey, Kachel continues to rally PSLA members—and all Pennsylvanians—to continue filling Casey’s inbox and voicemail. “We have never been closer in getting school library language in a reauthorization of ESEA/NCLB,” she shared in a listserv message to school library advocates dated March 12.

Sheketoff says this call-to-action goes for everyone, not just school librarians, but academic librarians, educators, administrators, parents, and public librarians—contact your state’s senators.

Tell your state’s senators to co-sponsor the SKILLS Act.

Check to see if your state’s senators serve on the HELP Committee, and contact him/her.


Carolyn Sun About Carolyn Sun

Carolyn Sun was a news editor at School Library Journal. Find her on Twitter @CarolynSSun.

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