Unity leadership has failed school librarians consistently over the years and, by extension, has failed our students. There are two Commissioner’s Regulations set in place by the New York State Education Department, regarding both school librarians and the maintenance of school libraries. Section 91.1 of the Commissioner’s Regulations mandates that every school in the state must have a functioning library. Section 91.2 of the Commissioner’s Regulations establishes that every library in a secondary school should have a certified school librarian; the Commissioner of Education defines a secondary school as any school between elementary level and college. Neither of these mandates are followed with fidelity in New York City public schools, even though these regulations have been in place since 1974.
As the governing caucus of the UFT for so many years, Unity has been in a position to exact change on this front. Instead, school libraries are one of the clearest signs of inequity in the largest school district in the world.
The number of schools without a librarian is not just one or two, but rather hundreds. Schools without librarians represent tens of thousands of young people without access to a school library or librarian, hundreds of unfilled pedagogical roles, thousands of teachers without the academic support a librarian can provide to supplement their practice, and entire communities without the literacy and programming expertise that a librarian brings. Every mayoral administration bemoans low literacy rates in the city, yet so many schools continue to not provide their students with library services. How can we claim literacy is a priority when we do not even provide the most basic access to students? The only guarantee of such access is affluence. It’s our wealthiest schools that have libraries with a robust staff. Meanwhile, I’m often told by my students that I’m the first librarian they have ever met.
Libraries are more than just metaphorical nice places that serve as a good space for a photo opportunity. According to Keith Curry Lance and Debra E. Kachel in their article “Why school librarians matter: What years of research tell us:”
Multiple studies have found that test scores tend to be higher in schools where librarians spend more time:
- Instructing students, both with classroom teachers and independently;
- Planning collaboratively with classroom teachers;
- Providing professional development to teachers;
- Meeting regularly with the principal;
- Serving on key school leadership committees;
- Facilitating the use of technology by students and teachers;
- Providing technology support to teachers, and
- Providing reading incentive programs.
Critically, it’s not only reading scores that increase, “in a 2015 Washington state study, the presence of a certified school librarian was also a predictor of higher elementary and middle school math scores” (Lance & Kachel, 2018). This same study indicates “the one key factor distinguishing high-performing high-poverty schools from low-performing high-poverty schools is a quality library program” (Coker, 2015). There are sheer mountains of research that indicate more positive outcomes, including higher graduation rates, in schools that have a library program.
Unity leadership under Michael Mulgrew has failed to address the following issues:
- State-provided library book funds being moved out of the appropriate budget line to be spent on everything but library books, in violation of state law.
- School Construction Authority designating the library a non-instructional space, despite librarians being certified teachers and classes being taught in the space by the school librarian (including classes for which the librarian is the teacher of record). This non-designation means that many school libraries do not have air conditioning, creating unsafe conditions for students and staff during both the COVID pandemic and routinely during the warmer months.
- Schools which list a random teacher or administrator as the librarian on the annual New York State Basic Educational Data (BEDS) Survey to avoid accountability for not staffing the library.
- Administrators who pull librarians from their libraries for excessive coverages or even for maternity leave replacements rather than hiring a substitute, both creating a barrier to access to the library and denying employment opportunities for UFT members who are substitute teachers.
- School libraries that have been turned into storage rooms and garbage dumps for decades, resulting in literal rats’ nests and safety hazards.
These concerns only scratch the surface of the issues facing school libraries.
Where has Unity been on these problems? Why don’t they ever advocate for us or our existence? Unity didn’t even acknowledge National School Librarian Day on their dedicated Twitter. Unfortunately that’s not too much of a surprise – Mulgrew himself, the President of the Unity caucus, barely acknowledges our existence. We’re never given more than toothless resolutions from union leadership, which do little to address the shortage of librarians.
And there is definitely a shortage. At the state level, the school library media specialist certification is recognized as a shortage area, but the city refuses to acknowledge it as such. There is no option for Teaching Fellows or others in alternative certification programs to specialize in school librarianship. The reason why so many school librarians have multiple graduate degrees is that many of us had to start as classroom teachers to even get in the door. School librarians in our city shoulder a wider burden of debt as a result. There is the Teacher 2 Librarian program, which gives classroom teachers the opportunity to transition to the library, but it’s only through the work and dedication of the New York City School Library System’s Office of Library Services and New Visions for Public Schools that this opportunity exists. Notably absent? Both our union and our union leadership.
The UFT has so much lobbying and political power, yet they do nothing to secure school libraries for our students despite the research, despite the state mandate, despite the fact that librarians are teachers, despite the fact that school librarians are rank and file members of the UFT. Unity claims they “do the work,” but in my experience, next to school librarians ourselves, the loudest advocates on behalf of school libraries are not Unity leadership. They are rank and file members from the other caucuses, particularly MORE, who rally behind school libraries.
I want a union that fights for equity. The current situation with school libraries is completely inequitable for our students. I’ve seen the shift that occurs when you bring a library to a school. Students are joyous and exuberant. Every day, I have a student who asks me if I have anything new in the library. I get to be the person who can connect students to concepts and ideas, but doesn’t give out a grade for that connection. Every student deserves access to that experience, regardless of what school they attend. Every school librarian deserves a union that will fight to make these rights into realities.
Coker, E. (2015, April). The Washington state school library study: Certified teacher-librarians, library quality and student achievement in Washington state public schools. Seattle, WA: Washington Library Media Association.
Lance, K.C. & Kachel, D.E. (2018). Why school librarians matter: What years of research tell us. Phi Delta Kappan, 99 (7), 15-20.