How did this happen? That’s what everyone wants to know. How does a public school library wind up with only 40 usable books of fiction on its shelves in a school that serves kids from pre-Kindergarten through the 8th grade? It turns out the answer has everything to do with state budgets, national priorities, and a long history of under- and unequal-funding of schools in our poorest neighborhoods.
Let’s start with the good news. Our call to action to Stack-the-Shelves at Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 went completely viral this week. Literally thousands of people around the country and across the globe saw our original post and blog piece (see “Library Books and Equity”) and within hours thousands more had shared the story with their networks on Facebook and twitter. We got re-tweeted by actress Allison Pill from the HBO series The Newsroom, children’s author Laurie Halse Anderson (who wrote Speak), and mega-award winning author Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, Coraline, The Graveyard Book, and many others). A new meme created by Kathy Newman captures this moment exactly:
By week’s end, hundreds and hundreds of donated books started pouring into the school, including over 650 new books purchased from an Amazon Wish List, and the Post-Gazette featured our grassroots movement on the front page. [Post-Gazette, 9-22-12] Sheila May-Stein, the intrepid librarian hired temporarily by the District to get Manchester’s library back on its feet, reports that, “Manchester Craftsman Guild is getting involved with the school, PPG offered a 3-year grant, Toonseum is donating cartooning classes, a local storyteller is going to tell stories and teach sign language, Pitt’s School of Library and Information Science students are going to help catalog, [and] Jonathan Mayo is going to help to fix up the physical space.”
Manchester is a distressed community, but it cares about the school and this grassroots action is helping to support even further engagement. Two women from the neighborhood were the very first people through the door with a giant box of donated books. Others from the Northside area are stepping up to volunteer in multiple ways, such as offering to read to the kids and helping students make posters based on the books they’ve read to decorate their new library.
This is an amazing success story for our grassroots movement and demonstrates the immense power we have when we act together. At the same time, it illustrates the much bigger issue of equity in public education and the choices that are being made at the local, state, and federal level. So here’s the short answer to that pressing question “How did this happen?”
For many years, Pittsburgh Public Schools gave principals flexibility in how they spent some of their funds in what is called their site-based budget. Flexibility can be a good thing and in theory allows schools to respond to local needs. However, when the entire school budget is not sufficient to cover all high-priority needs, principals have been forced to “rob Peter to pay Paul,” essentially stealing from library budgets to pay for things like teachers.
This occurred for years at places such as Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 with the tacit approval of the District. This doesn’t mean that other schools in the city were rolling in dough while the predominantly African-American Manchester didn’t have books, but the fact remains that other schools were making different choices while keeping their libraries. Some had parents raising money for some of the “extras” such as field trips to help free up the site-based budget for other needs. And it appears there was plain old inequity in the way resources were distributed among the District’s schools.
Part of the problem has been that the District did not put school libraries on a hard funding line, so they were fungible, and their budgets could be raided for other highly critical needs. This kind of structural issue creates a false dichotomy: we can either have a teacher or a librarian. Yet kids need both. All our students deserve a full time librarian, as well as art, music, language, and gym. These are not fat to be cut in lean times and we need to ensure that funding is available for all of these things.
The District’s new Equity program commits to having a library in every school this year, which is a good start. But one of the ways they have achieved that is by taking away flexibility with site-based budgets. When schools are not sufficiently funded, this actually creates new problems – and they can be very real problems with racial equity.
A quick example to illustrate: the city school where my sons attend lost its Title 1 funding a couple years ago because as the school population grew with more local, white families sending their children back into the public system the proportion of low-income (and mostly African-American) students dropped. Their absolute numbers actually stayed the same, but their overall percentage in the student population dropped just below the cut-off line for this federal program, which had been providing crucial funding for tutoring programs and teachers. When the District cut the school’s Parent Engagement Specialist this year – a key position for engaging those low-income families in their students’ education – the loss of flexibility with the site-based budget meant the principal was not permitted to shift funds to cover this critical need.
Of course, a much better equity action plan would be to adequately resource all schools, to make sure they have excellent leadership, and then to empower them with sufficient local control to meet local needs. When schools are not adequately funded, they are forced to make impossible choices. And Pennsylvania has been chronically under-funding public education for years (we rank 44/50 on how much we spend at the state level, forcing local towns to pick up the tab, contributing mightily to the inequity problem). We also have a broken funding formula that does not fairly distribute the state dollars we do spend.
This has affected kids all over Pennsylvania. One teacher from a North Philadelphia school wrote that, “not only have we had no library for at least 5 years, but it is now a shell. No books, no shelves, no computers, and no librarian.” She asked, “How can we develop a love and passion for reading when there are no books at school?” and added, “Our kids cannot even go to the public library in the neighborhood, because it is too dangerous.” Carol H. Rasco, CEO of Reading is Fundamental, the nation’s largest literacy program, explained that, “Currently there are 16 million children in our nation living in poverty, the highest number in two decades, and in low-income neighborhoods, there is only one book for every 300 children.” [Washington Post, 4-22-12]
That’s the equivalent of Manchester preK-8 having one book in the whole school. Our grassroots viral effort will make sure that Pittsburgh’s children have thousands of books to read. In this way (and in many, many others) Pittsburgh is very fortunate. But now we need to also make sure that there is a long-term plan for our school libraries.
Book collections don’t maintain themselves and a librarian one day per week in a school is simply not enough. They can barely check books in and out in that time, let alone collaborate with teachers to build on lessons being learned in the classroom, help students find appropriate reading material, teach information gathering skills, run reading clubs and other special programs, host book fairs, and get to know students and their individual needs. What’s more, under the new Equity plan, some schools are actually losing access to their librarians who used to be available three to five days per week, and now are being shared between schools. We are lucky to still have a librarian at my sons’ school, but she now has two classes she must teach on top of her regular librarian duties. This should not be.
I am hoping the District will address the staffing issue, but it will require a tough, honest conversation in our entire community. For instance, do we need to close still more schools, perhaps some of the smallest, so that we effectively have fewer total libraries and can fully staff them? I don’t know the answer to that question, but we need to talk about it. We will also need to know how the District will ensure that these thousands of donated books get properly catalogued and, once we fill the shelves at Manchester, how they will be distributed to the schools that need them. Finally, what will the District do with the funds they would have spent on books this year now that volunteers have stepped up to fill the library shelves?
In some ways, our well-meaning action has created a wrinkle for Pittsburgh Public Schools. Our donations do not fit into a well-planned scheme for developing school collections; there will be gaps and duplication; we’ve created an immediate need for resources to deal with the piles of boxes arriving at the school. But the outpouring of support for our schools is incredibly precious. This is a golden opportunity for the District to build on the goodwill of the community and to reinforce meaningful parent engagement with public education. And this grassroots movement will continue to ask tough questions about state budget priorities, too, which have perpetuated this inequality.