Follow the Leaders: Washington State’s Stellar Advocacy Model

How Washington State teacher librarians redefined their roles, organized, and created an outstanding advocacy model for all.

Washington State teacher librarian Stephen Coker remembers the fateful email from October 2007 that sparked his commitment to advocating for his profession. It was a cry for help from Lisa Layera Brunkan and two other moms in Spokane, WA, where schools were facing the loss of their librarians.

Looking at Brunkan’s email on the Washington Library Media Association (WLMA) listserv, Coker, who once prided himself on not being a joiner, decided to get involved. “I sent an email: ‘What can I do?’” says Coker, who works at North Thurston High School in Lacey. “Fifteen minutes later, I got this extremely detailed email of how I could help.”

Teacher librarian Ron Wagner with some of the
young people who inspire him to fight for school libraries.
Photograph by Faith Cathcart.

A few months after that, Coker joined a group including other teacher librarians, library researchers, and the three Spokane moms, calling themselves the Washington Coalition for School Libraries and Information Technology, in testifying before the 2008 state legislature in Olympia to advocate for school librarians. Since then, Coker, who served as WLMA secretary and as WLMA president (2010–2011), and other WLMA leaders have worked to transform their profession in their state. They have carried the torch of school library advocacy and worked to place a teacher librarian at every level of education decision-making.

Advocacy 101

The first insight into how the Washington State Legislature worked came to the Spokane moms in 2008 when then-Senate Majority Leader Lisa J. Brown invited them into her office and shut the door. A powerful Democrat leader, Brown knew how to get a bill through political obstacles and 147 lawmakers and into a governor’s hands.

Former Governor Christine Gregoire signing a 2011 bill that added information technology literacy to the state’s basic education goals.
Washington State Legislative Photo Center

She told the Spokane moms that they needed to understand “policy, politics, and people”—how to reach key decision-makers, navigate conflicts created by competition for limited resources, and stay positive. With Brown’s advice, the trio “figured out who the key budget writers were and went after them.”

The moms realized that whining and begging in Olympia would hurt their cause, says Brunkan. “We just vowed that we would never be negative.”

Here are some advocacy tips from the moms, the WLMA, and others on the political front lines:

Don’t get discouraged. Success may seem impossible. “Don’t let that stop you,” Brown says.

Pay attention. Open, regular communication with each librarian, school principal, key district administrator, state and local lawmaker, and legislative staff will yield early warnings of proposed staff cuts and opportunities to volunteer for school leadership roles. Silver lining: A crisis is an opportunity to shine a light on an issue.

Be leaders. Become indispensable. Volunteer for committees making decisions about hot topics, such as Common Core and teacher assessment. Apply for grants. Become the principal’s right hand. Help other educators with organizing information, technology integration, research, and tracking teacher accountability.

Trend watch. Stay up on new developments with technology and instruction.

Gather help. Build partnerships supporting the cause—with parent groups, labor unions, the state library association, leading education researchers, and business and philanthropic organizations.

Use existing infrastructure.Identify listservs, websites, and associations that will aid advocacy. Use them to gather information and communicate.

Lean on parent advocates. Republican or Democrat, state lawmakers are motivated to support education issues, says Priest. Parents can be effective advocates when supporting programs proven to raise student achievement.

Beware the enemy within. Be cautious of attitudes that impede moving advocacy and the profession forward. Don’t complain during strategy sessions or in front of supporters.

Use data. Lawmakers have limited time to study issues. Help them with objective studies and data to support proposals. If groups are arguing about the veracity of a study, legislators may turn down a request for support, Priest says.

Understand limits. Even in times of plenty, legislatures and school boards have limited funds, and school districts are not funded equally. Proposals emphasizing student improvement and efficiencies are more likely to get a green light.

Keep a positive message. Give advocates talking points for a consistent message. Ask them to illustrate points with their own library stories. Connect messages to data about student achievement and learning.

Get answers. Ask lawmakers and policy makers for something concrete. Follow up post-vote, and don’t burn bridges, Brown says. “Ask for something that they can do and can be held accountable for. Get a yes, no, or maybe.”

Maintain the energy. Brainstorm with the people in your school, district, and professional association, Applegate says. It’s critical for librarians to build school allies.

The three original Spokane moms—Brunkan, Susan McBurney, and Denette Hill—had been galvanized to action by frustration that school librarians were being cut in Spokane because the state did not consider them a funding priority. (See “Tough Mothers,” SLJ’s September 2008 cover story.) “Librarians were seen as dispensable,” says Ron Wagner, a teacher librarian at Felida Elementary School in Vancouver, who assumes the post of WLMA elementary level chair this month. The moms buttonholed lawmakers across the political spectrum to explain the impact school librarians made on their children’s education, backing up their advocacy with the work of nationally recognized education researchers such as Michael B. Eisenberg of the University of Washington’s iSchool. They reached out to WLMA and business and community groups. “A lot of people don’t realize what a strong modern school library program provides for kids,” says McBurney.

The moms’ approach worked. In an unusual move, the 2008 legislature funded $4 million to help districts retain school librarians.

This success gave WLMA the foundation to more effectively advocate for teacher librarians. In the years since, the moms and WLMA have built on those beginnings by reexamining the role of the profession, and using their mission itself as an effective advocacy tool.

Beyond appliqué sweaters

“What the Spokane moms started was the critical reexamination of the role the school librarian has in 21st-century schools,” says Mark Ray, Vancouver Public School’s director of instructional technology and library services and SLJ’s “Pivot Points” columnist. “Since then, WLMA has really worked on clarifying and defining what that looks like and the roles we need to play to support student learning.”

These efforts built on work begun in 2005. That year, WLMA leaders thwarted a move to eliminate school librarians from the state’s Common School Manual, a compilation of administrative rules governing school operations. WLMA leaders realized that education policy makers and legislators had an outdated idea of what school librarians did. Misconceptions included an aging woman in an appliqué sweater reading to little kids or a burned-out teacher killing time until retirement, WLMA leaders say. “We are all dealing with the paradigm of what the librarian was when we were in school,” says Coker. “It’s either the warm fuzzy stereotype or the negative stereotype.”

WLMA leaders reasoned that school librarians are teachers first, offering curriculum important to student success that no other teachers supply, including digital citizenship, as well as teaching fellow educators about effective use of instructional technology and Common Core resources.

“We renamed our position to be teacher librarians,” says Sarah Applegate, River Ridge High School’s teacher librarian in North Thurston Public Schools and WLMA past president (2005–2006). Though not everyone liked the move, according to Applegate, it was necessary, reflecting where education was headed, says WLMA past president (2011-2012) Craig Seasholes, a teacher librarian in the Sanislo Elementary School in the Seattle Public Schools. WLMA leaders had noticed that their peers who focused on books and literacy lost jobs and were replaced by shelvers, but those who embraced instructional technology remained employed. “If you’re an essential teacher, you have a job in a school,” says Seasholes.

Legal elbow grease

WLMA built on these significant shifts with steady work that followed up on the moms’ funding victory. “Sometimes citizens work very, very hard but the momentum isn’t maintained. WLMA took advantage of the legislation and the momentum,” says former Representative Skip Priest, a Federal Way, WA, Republican who served from 2003 to 2010. WLMA deepened its work at the state level, talking to as many lawmakers as possible and inviting them into school libraries across the state. “It wasn’t just talking to the leaders of education. It was talking to all the legislators and reminding them of the importance of librarians and reminding them of the importance of education,” Priest adds.

WLMA leaders always set big goals. After 2008, the group modified its approach, hiring lobbyist Carolyn Logue to help them strategize, says Brunkan, a former executive headhunter. “They went from having a hand out to having someone showing up at the table and building relationships and being a resource.”

Logue, principal at CA Logue Public Affairs in Olympia, helped shape the conversations at the capital and in local schools, developing strategies with WLMA members to meet their legislative goals each year. “They aren’t bringing pipe dreams. They bring proposals to the legislature that make sense to the legislators and that make sense to the discussion,” Brunkan says.

WLMA leadership deepened its partnerships with the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to work on adaptation of Common Core curriculum, and collaborated with both OSPI and with the Northwest Council for Computer Education (NCCE) to work on instructional technology. For example, librarians made up a third of the 250 teachers in a federally funded program to teach how to improve student performance by using instructional technology in the classroom, says Dennis Small, OSPI’s educational technology director.

From 2009 to 2011, WLMA convinced the state legislature to pass or make changes to three bills that incorporate teacher librarians and the information literacy, technology fluency, and other lessons librarians teach students into the state’s definition of a basic education. Since the Washington Constitution defines the state’s top priority as educating children, WLMA wanted the role of teacher librarians codified into state education law.

In 2009, this was accomplished when the inclusion of a teacher librarian was incorporated into the definition of a prototypical school in House Bill 2261. This was a key achievement, even in light of the fiscal reality that the state would need an estimated additional $4 billion for every district to meet the goals set by prototypical school legislation.

In 2010, Priest and Democratic House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan (D-Covington) sponsored and passed House Bill 2776, defining basic education for the state and specifically mentioning the importance of teacher librarians in basic education funding. That same year, the WLMA board formerly defined teacher librarians’ three essential functions as information technology instruction, reading advocacy, and information management.

In 2011, Senate Bill 5392 integrated technology literacy and fluency and digital citizenship into the state’s Basic Education Goals across the curriculum. As a result, OSPI began to tie teacher librarians to technology fluency and information literacy. “WLMA has associated librarians with innovation and instructional technology,” says Ray, who testified at SB 5392 hearings. “That is an unusual thing for teacher librarians to do.”

Logue says that WLMA took a risk. “They really took the bull by the horns as public school employees and said that there is a new way to do things,” she says. “It was not without angst. They set themselves apart from other school employees by saying our profession needs to change, and we’re not going to wait.”

At every table

Since many cuts are made at local school board levels, WLMA has reached out to its members to get teacher librarians involved in decision-making at the district level. Coker’s goal was to place a teacher librarian at every table where a decision about education was being made. Teacher librarians were encouraged to approach their principals to volunteer to help with Common Core integration, assessment, and other high priorities, according to Seasholes and Coker. “One of the challenges that librarians face is they have to translate their worth into today’s terms,” Priest says.

At some meetings, a WLMA member may be the only educator speaking who has daily student contact. WLMA encourages reluctant members to take leadership roles in their schools and districts and to invite lawmakers into their libraries.

WLMA leaders look for “shovel-ready projects” to improve student achievement. They suggest members use these projects to make themselves indispensable within their districts. “It’s that invisibility that is going to kill you,” says Coker. “If you’re a good, efficient manager, people don’t see it.”

For example, this spring, Sara Glass, WLMA legislative chair and teacher librarian at the Peter G. Schmidt Elementary School in the Tumwater School District, worked with teachers to incorporate new iPads into their lessons. Glass volunteered to join an interview team for a vacant position that works with Common Core standards.

This was on top of the six classes Glass teaches each day, but it was also a way to make Glass valuable within her school. The 6,000-student Tumwater district reduced its number of full-time teacher librarians to 8.6 during 2011–2012, down from 10 in 2007–2008—a 14 percent drop, according to WLMA data. “We have to make ourselves so crucial to student success and support for teachers that they can’t imagine there not being either a teacher librarian or a library at school,” Glass says.

Transformation time

While the accomplishments in Washington point to a model for self-transformation and ongoing advocacy, there is more to be done. The number of full-time equivalent (FTE) teacher librarians in Washington State has dropped by 14 percent from 2007–2008—when the moms began their advocacy—to 2011–2012, a loss of 176 positions, according to the most recent data gathered by WLMA from OSPI.

Many small or isolated school systems in Washington have less than a handful of teacher librarians, and those are often spread out over several schools. Because the funding levels and priorities vary from district to district, some schools have eliminated librarians in elementary grades and some at secondary levels. Other districts, including those in Seattle and Bellevue, cut positions and spread their remaining teacher librarians across several schools. At least 51 small school districts in Washington had eliminated school librarians prior to 2008. This widening gap in education goes beyond funding issues, Ray says. “That’s the new gap that is imminent. It’s not just money. It is vision and the ability to realize that vision.”

The gap is evident nationally. Washington State is among 19 others in the nation where the rate of loss of school librarians from 2006–2007 to 2010–2011 has hit the double digits, according to NCES data. Michigan, with 42 percent of its school librarian positions eliminated, may be the hardest hit. The three states that have lost the most FTE are Michigan (538), New York (520), and California (497). Idaho has seen a drop of 68, or 40 percent, while Oregon faced a 21 percent drop of 83 positions. During that same time—which does not take into account the 2011–2012 school year reported by WLMA—Washington saw an 11 percent reduction in teacher librarians. The silver lining: the District of Columbia and Tennessee have seen 171 percent and 21 percent rises, respectively, in school librarian positions.

Nebulous opposition

During five years of advocacy, no lawmaker or school board has ever openly opposed WLMA’s message. “It’s hard to identify any enemies,” Coker says. “They all say they love libraries.” But when it’s time to vote for funding, lawmakers’ justifications reflect the same sentiments that galvanized the Spokane moms, Coker says. They explain that teacher librarians aren’t a funding priority.

Another issue is helping lawmakers and policy makers understand the inequity of education funding across the state, Applegate says. Local levies, once designed to supplement state funding, make up a significant portion of local districts’ budgets. These must be reauthorized every two to three years, making them particularly vulnerable in times of economic downturn, especially in the state’s rural or poor districts.

Two of the biggest remaining challenges to retaining teacher librarians at schools across the state are the unwillingness of some teacher librarians to adapt to changing times, and the negative outlook some express after years of battle. When the moms visited Washington and Idaho schools to speak on 21st-century libraries, Brunkan says she was overwhelmed by some of the negativity. “I’m not suggesting that teacher librarians don’t process and express how they feel,” she explains. But “it’s absolutely imperative that they don’t do it in such a way that they alienate supporters and decision makers.”

Not everyone is comfortable with new technology or volunteering for a leadership role. The attributes and skills that attracted people to the profession 25 years ago run counter to many needed to be an effective 21st-century teacher librarian, says Ray, a teacher librarian for 20 years. “Honestly, there’s really not a lot of room left for people who say, ‘No,’ because they won’t have jobs anymore,” he adds.

Getting to yes

Ray practices what he preaches. In 2008, while a teacher librarian at Skyview High School, Ray gathered a team of his Vancouver Public Schools librarian colleagues together to brainstorm, says Wagner, a teacher librarian on that team.

The Vancouver schools board of directors had just approved the district’s five-year strategic plan, and Ray wanted his peers to show the newly tapped superintendent Steven T. Webb how teacher librarians could help the 22,200-student district in southwestern Washington realize its goals, says Wagner.

For Vancouver’s teacher librarians, this approach signaled a mindset change, says Wagner. Previously, many librarians waited for teachers to come to them. Ray’s team urged a proactive stance: Reaching out to district officials, principals, and teachers to offer their skills and expertise. “We made ourselves the go-to people,” Wagner says. “That was a big thing.”

Vancouver’s plan required district administrators to make program decisions based on their ability to improve student performance, says Lisa Greseth, chief information officer. Ray, later named 2012 Washington State teacher of the year, saw opportunity in the strategic plan. His team of teacher librarians saw that their skills with organizing information and integrating technology into instruction and their teaching abilities could help their fellow teachers succeed.

District leaders agreed, committing to developing teacher librarians as teacher leaders in their schools, Greseth says. This saved teacher librarian jobs in Vancouver when the district was making cutbacks. While Washington State saw a 14 percent drop in the number of full-time equivalent school librarians from 2007–2008 to 2011–2012, Vancouver schools retained its 31 FTE teacher librarians, according to district data compiled by WLMA. “We have held onto these positions because they were considered to be a priority to students being college-, career-, and life-ready,” Greseth says. When Ray’s teacher librarian team approached the superintendent, they didn’t talk about job retention, says Greseth. “The conversation was always about: How does our job help kids?”

Today, Vancouver teacher librarians teach digital citizenship, support the transition to Common Core curriculum, and train teachers to effectively use technology in the classroom in ways proven to raise student performance. Most recently, teacher librarians have begun implementing a $24 million, voter-approved classroom technology initiative over the course of the next six years. “We’re talking about it as a future-ready initiative,” Greseth says. (Vancouver’s district leadership team shared its strategy at the 2013 SLJ Leadership Summit, held in Austin in September.)

Future brighter

WLMA leaders say that without their advocacy, their profession would be in far worse shape. This past school year, things began to look up, with some districts now hiring. “We’re seeing an uptick across the state,” says Applegate. “That has me feeling optimistic that maybe some of our message is getting across.”

Coker also thinks that the profession may have turned a corner, at least in some districts. “I know good programs have been cut,” Coker says. But “they are starting to come back. Districts are hiring, and they are looking for a lot of people who can run an LIT [library and instructional technology] program.”

The statewide picture is helped by the 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling that the state’s basic education was not amply funded. This is seen by education advocates as a way to invigorate budgets. In response to the ruling, the legislature voted in June 2013 to add $1 billion to raise the biennial education budget by seven percent, for a total of $15.2 billion.

Still, teacher librarians in Washington aren’t resting easy. An estimated $3 billion more will be needed to fund the level of service defined in the prototypical school legislation, and there’s no guarantee that even these partial gains will be permanent. Wagner, who remembers a recent year when a librarian on ALA’s Michael L. Printz Award Committee almost lost her job, says, “It seems like every year when they talk about budgets, librarians are considered.”

Marta Murvosh, MLS, is a recovering journalist who works for a regional library system in Northwestern Washington, where she connects patrons to information, resources, technology, and books. You can follow her at

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