Amid ESSA Uncertainty, Educators Urged To Be "Aware" and "Active"

In an age of ESSA and regulation unknowns, the best thing to do right now is to advocate for yourself.
School librarians are feeling keenly uncertain about educational funding and direction, particularly that which comes from the national level. But those marshaling support for school librarian programs say that for now, the best course of action for educators is to be aware, get active, and don’t be afraid to push. “School librarians need to be more political than they have been,” says Sara Kelly Johns, adjunct instructor at the Syracuse University iSchool and a school library program consultant. “They have to work the system.” essa-stepsThe Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is still the law of the land when it comes to educational funding and rules. States are continuing to submit their plans—some due in April and others in September—as required. But Congress has been vocal, and somewhat active, about their intentions, which may include gutting some ESSA rules—and potentially even the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) itself. The House of Representatives voted, for example, to overturn ESSA regulations instituted at the end of President Obama’s tenure around accountability and how to assess and assist schools deemed struggling, among other details. That proposal now sits with the Senate. Additionally, a bill from the House of Representatives, H.R. 610, pulls power from the DOE by distributing funds through vouchers. (It also ends nutritional requirements for school lunch.) “If [the former] advances through the Senate, then it’s bigger than us, bigger than school libraries,” says John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary. “It’s about the whole megillah, about accountability measures that have been put in place.”

Be prepared

Still, Chrastka and others agree that school librarians must remain aware of potential changes to education rules, standards, and funding that could roll down from Capitol Hill. Cuts are likely, says Audrey Church, current president of the ALA’s American Association of School Librarians (AASL) and a professor and coordinator of Longwood University’s Graduate School of School Librarianship in Farmville, VA. “We all have to be vigilant,” she says. That’s why Johns believes school librarians need to be prepared by advocating for their roles. AASL has tools to help librarians build coalitions, see their state’s progress in submitting educational plans, and develop informed advocacy strategies. Johns also suggests school librarians meet with state-level decision makers, particularly those who handle technology budgets, for schools. Linking school librarians, and the work they do, to state and federal digital literacy guidelines, rather than just those for libraries alone, can yield an additional financial resource. “Being able to tie the school library to digital literacy means that any funds for technology or professional development can then flow to the school library,” says Johns.

Bring it home

Once school librarians have spoken to those at the state level, advocating for themselves at the local level is the next job. Ways to do it include talking before a local school board, speaking at PTA events, or requesting one-on-one meetings with school principals. For school librarians already comfortable with advocacy of this nature, teaching others how to campaign for themselves is another great step, one Katie Williams, a former middle school librarian in California, took. She recently ran two presentations about advocacy at the California School Library Associations annual conference, and, wanting to help California school librarians learn the ropes, is speaking with a group of them this month, specifically on how to work with their local school districts, she told SLJ in an email. Church believes it’s never too early to speak up at the local level for school librarian programs. Ideally, once parents, teachers, and even students see how a school library can affect student learning, they turn into champions for school librarians as well. “It’s much stronger when people speak for us, when teachers say they can’t do what they do without school librarians, or students speak up for the library at the PTA [meetings]," says Church, who spent 20 years as a school librarian in Virginia. "It’s better when they recognize our value.”    

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