February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Wisconsin School Libraries To Get $37.7 Million This Year


An elementary school library learning commons in Kenosha, WI, has flexible spaces for multiple user groups. Photos courtesy of  Kenosha Unified School District

Imagine a state where school libraries have a trust fund. Where every school, regardless of district or zip code, receives the same per-pupil allocation every year, a percentage of the fund’s dividends. This year, those dividends total a record $37.7 million—more than $31 per student.

Look to Wisconsin.

The state’s Common School Fund was established in 1848 by the Wisconsin Constitution. To create a permanent fund to support and maintain “common schools”—today’s K–12 public schools, and school libraries—the new state sold nearly 1.5 million acres of land.

How the trust works

Today the fund is managed by the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands (BCPL), and the assets are primarily invested in the BCPL State Trust Fund Loan Program, which lends money for public projects. The interest earned on these loans and additional investments is distributed annually to school districts across the state, based on an annual census of school-age residents. The fund’s principal grows each year, as a percentage of all fines, fees, and forfeitures collected by the state is added to it.

2nd grade lego boy and girl (3)

Students use robotic LEGO in an elementary library learning commons.

Thomas McCarthy of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) explains that the distribution to schools varies from year to year, based on the health of the fund. This was a particularly strong year, he says, though he anticipates a “slight drop” in 2017.

Even so, Wisconsin’s school library funding levels—and commitment to a dedicated, permanent funding source—are impressive when compared with the national average allocation of $10 per student annually.



A Kenosha district student uses an iPad app for storyboarding and animation.

There are purchasing guidelines. A Wisconsin statute specifies that Common School Fund disbursements can be used to purchase library books and instructional materials, resources for use in teaching Wisconsin history, and computers and software.

In support of the Wisconsin Digital Learning Plan’s strategic goal of providing equitable services and resources to all staff and students, digital resources must be universally accessible in the school library and selected in consultation with a designated library media coordinator. The DPI engages a broad oversight committee to regularly review the alignment of curriculum with purchasing guidelines.

A matter of equity

Christine O’Regan, library media teacher consultant with the Kenosha Unified School District, says that allocating the annual disbursement across the district’s 33 public schools is a matter of equity. The district receives a distribution from DPI, and then the library media department allocates the money to each school based on enrollment. But first, O’Regan works with the district’s library media teachers to purchase district-level database subscriptions and build a core collection with one third of the district’s full allocation. Representatives from each school meet annually to select titles, and copies of every book are distributed to each building, ensuring that the curriculum is consistently supported across the district’s elementary, middle and high schools.


A middle school library learning commons in Kenosha.

Each school also builds a unique, location-specific collection, spending roughly half the school disbursement to do so. The remaining half is spent on school-based technology. O’Regan notes that the tech in Kenosha’s school libraries rivals and may exceed what’s available in the public libraries. “Many of our students don’t have home Internet service or a computer they can use for school assignments, and school libraries are able to bridge this technology divide by lending e-readers, laptops, and even portable hotspots to students overnight,” she says.


Another Kenosha middle school library learning commons.

Every public school in Kenosha, with the exception of three charter schools and a choice school, has a fully-equipped library staffed per state statutes. Library staff conduct school-wide professional development to ensure that students and teachers understand the resources available in the school’s media center and fully
integrate them into classroom curriculum.

As the Department of Public Instruction website describes:

Wisconsin School Libraries are centers for inquiry. School libraries staffed by professional school librarians provide equitable access to professional, digital and print resources to ensure all students in our state graduate being effective consumers, curators and creators of information using the technology tools necessary for successful life in the 21st century.  

With a constitutionally established commitment to support, sustain, and grow school libraries in perpetuity, the founders’ vision is Wisconsin’s reality, and its students the beneficiaries.

Melanie Baron is a consultant to libraries and museums around the country. She is proud to have been a founding staff member of ImaginOn: The Joe & Joan Martin Center, and even more proud to be the parent of a rising third grader who loves all libraries.

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  1. Kate Lehne says:

    As a school librarian in Wisconsin, I am forever grateful for our Common School Fund. However, I wish our state’s government realized the importance of librarians as well. Many districts in rural areas have only one certified librarian in their districts, and some are sharing librarians, which reduces their services to that of a person in charge of ordering books. Public school funding is flat in our state; schools cut positions. Unfortunately the position of librarian is one that is cut. Please realize that while Wisconsin students benefit from the CSF, they are losing out on the great offerings a school librarian adds to their education.

  2. Carol Surges says:

    As a former school library media specialist in a Wisconsin public school district, I concur with Kate Lehne’s comments. I lost my position and returned to the classroom in 2011. At that time all nine elementary schools in the Wauwatosa School District were shifted from a full-time SLMS in each building to a single coordinator. Part time aides were hired and students visited the library to exchange books for about 30 minutes a week. This is just one district’s example. The same thing is playing out all across the state. Rich in materials but poor in how to use or access them.

  3. Wrye D. Oliver says:

    “Imagine a state where school libraries have a trust fund. Where every school, regardless of its ZIP code, receives the same per-pupil allocation annually.” Yes, imagine that. It’s true for most Wisconsin schools, but not us charter schools who are held to the same standards, yet are given zero dollars from the Common School Fund. I understand the problems that districts are having with removing full time librarians, and I am thankful to remain in this position full time, but Imagine doing it with A.) Less $$ per pupil overall and B.) Zero CSF monies for the library.