School Libraries 2021: Legislative Goals and the Importance of Accountability

Legislation that mandates certified librarians in every school seems like the solution to librarian loss, but it isn’t always that simple—as Washington State shows.

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Elementary school librarian JK Burwell spends much of her time thinking in twos: two collections, two budgets, two sets of administrators and fellow educators, two schools with different students to support and teach. Burwell splits her time between Graham Hill Elementary and John Muir Elementary in Seattle as the sole librarian at both schools in the city’s South End neighborhoods. “I’m running back and forth between two schools and doing upkeep without any help,” she says. “It’s overwhelming.”

In the mornings, she takes a two-mile bike ride from her home to Graham Hill, where she spends half the day managing the collection, squeezes in a read-aloud or quick lesson, and checks out books to students. By lunchtime, Burwell is back on her bike, riding another three miles to do the same at John Muir. With just half a day at each site, there’s little time for students to browse books during open library hours, let alone coordinate a hands-on lesson with a teacher, Burwell says. “I always offer to help, but I don’t have the bandwidth to always go to [teacher] meetings and brainstorm,” she says. “I’m pulled in too many directions.”

This isn’t unusual for school librarians in Washington, where school libraries are at the mercy of inconsistent support from the government and districts. More than a decade ago, advocates pushed for legislation at the state level to require teacher librarians in every school library, and won. It was a huge victory and rightfully celebrated, but it didn’t bring the overall change and stability intended.

School librarians continue to find themselves battling for their jobs and funding. Local districts still hold control over delegating the funds for library staff positions and materials. The result: Some districts have schools with full-time certified teacher librarians right next to schools that have none, while other schools have part-time librarians who take on additional teaching and support positions or serve multiple sites, like Burwell. This creates a mixed bag of library experiences for students, with differences that can be extreme.

“The whole system is just inequitable,” says Elizabeth Roberts, who works four days a week as a teacher librarian and the fifth as a K–5 curriculum developer for information literacy in the Bellevue district. “We are supposed to be getting enough state funding, but the way that money works its way down to schools is just interesting. The priorities that people have can really change from place to place, from district to district, in different regions across our state.”

The dilemma is driving school librarians to speak out to policymakers and fight for their place in Washington’s education system. More than half of Washington’s state budget is dedicated to K–12 public school education, and schools also get federal and local funding, yet districts continue to struggle with deficits. In 2007, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of two families against the state of Washington, for “not meeting its constitutional obligation to amply fund a uniform system of education.”


The case, McCleary v. Washington , eventually reached the state supreme court, which ruled education funding can only be cut for academic reasons—not for budgetary reasons. As the case moved forward, the issues raised made people reevaluate what basic education should look like, including the presence of school libraries, library materials, and teacher ­librarians. The discussions led to a 2009 legislative bill for the Prototypical School Funding Model, a guide that lays out the basic necessities every school should have, and the funding required to meet those standards. Teacher ­librarians were included in the model, and later, a pool of funding was set aside specifically for library materials ($20 for ­every full-time student) in the materials, supplies, and operating costs (MSOC) part of the state budget.

student librarian ratios-factoid-chartThe state’s recognition of school libraries was a step forward, but there was a major discrepancy in the language of the law—one that would give local districts power and flexibility over spending. The legislation allows school boards to use the resources “as they deem necessary,” effectively making the state’s funding and staffing allocations a mere recommendation. The state does not dictate how general education funding is spent by districts, explains Carolyn Logue, a legislative consultant and lobbyist for the Washington Library Association (WLA). As a local control state, the state sends the money, but the local school board oversees the spending.

“Technically, the state is providing funding for almost one librarian in every school, sometimes more,” says Logue. “But the districts aren’t mandated to spend it that way.”

This has compelled teacher librarians and advocates, including Rebecca Wynkoop, a full-time teacher librarian at Robert Eagle Staff Middle School in Seattle Public Schools, to lobby government committees to change the language to “required.” The policymakers, however, have yet to budge.

“Without the requirement, it’s a constant battle,” says Wynkoop, who is also the 2020–21 director of the school library division of WLA.

In 2019, Spokane Public Schools, the second largest in the state, had a $31 million budget deficit and eliminated all school librarian positions. “The funding from the state [for libraries] was still there—they just decided to use it on other things,” says Ryan Grant, teacher librarian at Michael Anderson Elementary in Medical Lake School District, just outside of Spokane.

Robert Jinishian, the librarian at North Central High School in Spokane, vividly remembers the April afternoon when he learned that library positions were being cut. “That day, every principal in the district announced to [their] librarian that they were breaking up libraries,” he says. “In the state of Washington, you’re supposed to have an accredited librarian at the high school level, so I figured I was fairly safe. It was a reasonably large shock.”

School librarians with more seniority had the option to be transferred into the classroom as teachers or leave the district. Librarians with less experience were laid off. Jinishian chose to teach in elementary school.

This year, Spokane school librarians received another, much more positive, update when the district announced librarian positions would return for the 2021–22 academic year. It was good news, but Grant, who had sat in on some of the hiring interviews for the Spokane positions, says that the 2019 layoffs left former librarians “shell-shocked.”

“When they put the positions back this year, a lot of the librarians didn’t go rushing back to the library the way I thought they might,” he says.

The new librarian positions for elementary and secondary schools were listed under a new title, “21st Century Library Information Specialists.” The elementary librarian model looked similar to the position before it was cut, but secondary librarian positions were quite different, says Jinishian. He returned as the library information specialist at North Central High School, but now must split his time among his previous collection duties, tech coaching—which may or may not be library related—and teaching two sections of 10th grade world history. The job is now really one-fifth librarian position, he says.


Under the Prototypical School Funding Model , teacher librarian staffing hinges on the number of full-time enrolled students, which means that schools with larger student populations receive more state funding for staffing. That’s where many schools in eastern Washington struggle financially to support a librarian, says Grant. “The funding formula gets really weird with the small schools, where we have 50 or 100 kids. A school like that probably doesn’t need a full-time librarian, but at the same time, they need some kind of library support,” he says.

But finding a certified school librarian who will work half time, or even less, can be difficult when most want a full-time position, Grant adds. This leads many of the smaller districts to take the state’s money intended for certified teacher librarians and use it to hire “classified librarians”—library staff who do not have teaching certificates or an MLIS. “In most of these districts, it’s a great, well-meaning person,” Grant says. But the library “isn’t everything that a library could be.”

In Bellevue, east of Seattle, Roberts, teacher librarian at Wilburton Elementary, sees similar staffing issues arise across the district. The Bellevue School District has 28 schools situated in a high socioeconomic area with the ability to secure funding, Roberts says. Even so, the way the legislation is currently written deeply affects their library staff hiring.

“It’s heartbreaking for those of us who have worked really hard and understand the background that’s needed to be a school librarian,” says Roberts.

Reporting of library positions is an issue across the country. With no standard of title (librarian, teacher librarian, library media specialist, etc.) or required qualifications, what shows up as a full-time librarian in the data may actually be very different educators in the library. In Washington, for example, an elementary school can report a full-time librarian on staff even if that educator is not a certified librarian.

In Bellevue, elementary schools in the district each have a full-time librarian. The job stability is largely made possible by a layer of protection from their union, explains Roberts. In their contracts, elementary school librarians are included in the specialists’ rotation, which was created to provide prep time for classroom teachers. The district’s specialists, which include art and music teachers, computer science specialists, and librarians, teach students when classroom teachers need time to grade papers or plan lessons.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Sarah Logan, teacher librarian at Dorothy Fox Elementary in the Camas School District, near the southern border of the state. Her position is also categorized in the specialists’ rotation to help during teacher prep time.

“I don’t really get to collaborate with teachers, because they have things to do during their prep time and I’m teaching their students,” she says.

This can have a silo effect on library programming. When Logan worked as a high school librarian in California, where she was not contractually obligated to cover during teacher prep time, there were more opportunities to coteach and intertwine library programming with course units. Now, one of the few ways she finds opportunities to connect with teachers is over lunchroom conversations.

“I feel like a vulture at lunch, just trying to jump on whatever tiny tidbits of collaboration I can create,” she says.




In Seattle Public Schools, staffing is allocated based on two factors: the number of full-time enrolled students and the number of full-time certified teachers. But about 10 years ago, during a budget crisis, the district cut all elementary school librarians to half time, says Wynkoop.

“Any elementary school librarian who is looking for full-time employment has to either work at two schools, which is incredibly challenging, or find a school that has a PTA that is willing to fund that additional position or increase it to full-time employment.”

This is why Burwell commutes between schools. She could only qualify for half-time at Graham Hill, due in part to the school’s population size of approximately 300 students. She led its library as a half-time librarian for seven years before deciding to take a second half-time position at John Muir last year.

“I was just working so many hours and not getting paid for it,” says Burwell. “I thought I really should be getting paid for all the work I do, so I took on another school.”

Burwell considers herself lucky to be present at both libraries five days a week; other librarians she knows work multiple sites that are much farther apart. Some of them open each library for only part of the week or juggle varying levels of resources among schools with different demographics.

“I know some people who work at a very wealthy school for two and half days, and [the rest at] a South End school where they’re just looking for every dime you can get.”

Meanwhile, teacher librarian Anne Aliverti works full-time at Bryant Elementary—in an affluent neighborhood in Seattle’s North End—with a larger student body than Graham Hill and John Muir. While larger schools in Washington may be allocated more state funds due to student enrollment, they may not qualify for other types of funding, such as grants or levy equalization funding, Aliverti explains. And, under a burden of continuous deficits, districts often redirect the MSOC library funds toward other critical needs, forcing school librarians to look elsewhere for money. In Aliverti’s case, she only receives $500 from her school, which she uses for supplies.

“The funding is all over the map, but it’s not malicious on the principal’s or administration’s part. They’re just working in a deficit model,” she says. “When we get new PTA folks and I tell them we don’t have a library budget from the school, they’re appalled.”

However, regardless of student enrollment numbers or supportive PTAs, Aliverti and Burwell find their funding and positions threatened during budget season. The state funds specified in the Prototypical School Funding Model that are used for teacher librarians are from the same stipend that funds guidance counselors, school nurses, reading specialists, art teachers, and music ­teachers, which creates a fight for the money.


At Aliverti’s and Burwell’s schools, staff can weigh in on the final budget and vote for positions needed. The situation pits staff against one another, says Aliverti. For instance, a couple years ago, Bryant Elementary had the money to fund a full-time counselor, but it was only enough to support the position for a year.

“After that, we were like, ‘Well, we have money for a half-time counselor,’” says Aliverti. “But do we do that? Or do we have a full-time librarian? It’s really brutal to do that.”

Every time a budget is up for approval, Aliverti is told that her position is going to be reduced to half-time, before extra funds are “miraculously” found, she says. Wynkoop recalls having to go through the same experience and giving her job “pitch” to staff each year when she worked at Daniel Bagley Elementary in Seattle.

“You basically have to line up next to your colleagues and say, ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ It’s incredibly demoralizing for even the most skilled and successful of professionals to have to do that. It’s not productive, it’s not healthy for a school staff, and it falls incredibly short of the intent of McCleary, which was to ensure that schools do have everything that they need,” she says. “We’re not there. We’re not even close.”

The decision-making process places an enormous amount of stress not only on staff, but also on families and students who must adapt to the shifts in availability of school services. Staff are not just voting on jobs. Ultimately, “we’re voting for these kids,” says Burwell. “In the South End, we have such high-need schools that need a lot of support. We need people to help with reading, math, counseling, family support. Your heart goes out to these kids, because they need all of these things.”

When Logue is negotiating with legislators, she often encounters two major issues: a lack of understanding of today’s school library programs, and school board members’ fear of being locked into forceful funding mandates.

“We need to get the districts to recognize the importance of school libraries and provide resources, but we [also] understand the need for spending flexibility to best serve students,” says Logue.

Many school district leaders and lawmakers have little to no knowledge of what a school librarian does today, says Wynkoop. Outdated perceptions are dispelled when “a school librarian actually brings legislators into their building to see what they do,” Logue says. Providing data that shows the impact of school librarians is an important part of gaining support as well.

Changing the law will not fix everything, Wynkoop says—the struggles that school libraries face are just a small crack in Washington’s historically financially troubled education system—but it would be a step toward building more equitable library access.

“Every student in K–12 in the state of Washington should have a strong school library program run by a qualified, credentialed teacher librarian,” says Logan. “I’m not going to stop advocating legislatively until that is true.”

Lauren J. Young is a journalist in New York City and producer at Science Friday.

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