Several circumstances created a confluence or “perfect storm” of conditions that contributed to school librarian cuts. Here’s a look at likely issues at three levels—national, state, and local/school district.
Many library positions are lost when librarians retire and are not replaced. The aging of the profession is a factor: The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that librarians represent a somewhat older profession than teachers. Sixty-three percent of all librarians in 2016 were 54 years old or older with a median age of 50.7, compared to a median age of 42.9 for all other educators. The retirement of a school librarian presents a decision point to school administrators and boards, and if there is lack of clarity of the value of the role, it risks being cut.
In the past, national school accreditation organizations based their evaluations in part on a quality school library program, including certificated staff, appropriate-sized collections, and a strong instructional program. Criteria for K–12 school accreditation today, including AdvancedED, National Blue Ribbon Schools, and some regional Commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools, have never had—or removed—the requirement for school librarians as part of their school evaluation process. Such standards often state that staff and students are to be provided with learning and information opportunities, training, and well-vetted and selected resources, but seldom mention “librarians” or “libraries.”
Another national trend is the elimination of school library certification programs in universities with teacher education or LIS programs. Many universities have closed low-profit, low-enrollment school library master’s degree and certification programs as fewer candidates seek them. According to NCES data, in the past five years the number of master’s degrees conferred for the field of library science has dropped by 32 percent. Anecdotally, few teachers view earning school library certification worth the expense, as moving from classroom to library is financially neutral and possibly risky.
People frequently point to the erosion of state funding of education as a factor. School funding continues to come primarily from state and local sources, with only 8.5 percent from federal sources in 2014–15, according to NCES. School districts depend more on local communities, and then can find their hands tied due to state limitations on how much taxes can be raised.
However, after adjusting for inflation, 2014–15 spending on U.S. public schools has gone up slightly for the second consecutive year, according to NCES data—reversing a decline in spending for the prior four years. However, these increases have not yet returned school spending to the pre-recession levels of 2008–09. During the same period, school population has increased, as have costs and mandated services.
The recession is often blamed for school funding cuts, but the worst librarian losses occurred between 2010 and 2016—a 17 percent loss. Between 2010 and 2015 (the latest data), per pupil current spending (PPCS) of public elementary-secondary school systems increased by 7.5 percent (see chart).
A lack of state education regulations and mandates that support school library programs and certified staffing is also pervasive. Few states have legislative regulations requiring public schools to employ school librarians. Of the 22 that do, few enforce it. In states currently trying to pass legislation requiring school librarians, such as Pennsylvania, Nevada, Missouri, and New Jersey, the conversation is stalled due to an unwillingness to fund certified school librarians.
The absence or elimination of a school library official in state governments also impedes support. A report from ALA states, “While the research consistently indicates a serious need for full time state department school library consultants/coordinators, the research also consistently shows funding for these positions has been decreased or eliminated.” With no informed authority at the table to advocate, the case to require certified school librarians is often never made or considered.
In addition, certification requirements to become a school librarian have been weakened in recent years through alternate paths or by allowing candidates to simply pass a “library media” test. In many states, teachers can take state or national tests, such as the PRAXIS II School Library Media test, to become certified with little or no library course work. The subsequent job performance of these minimally prepared librarians leads administrators to conclude that the position can be eliminated with little consequence to student learning.
The growing number of charter schools are independently run, have more local control, more flexibility, fewer governing requirements, and fewer school librarians. According to Reuters, charter schools make up nearly eight percent of all public elementary and secondary schools, an increase from 5.9 percent five years earlier. According to a 2013 NCES report, only one-third of charter schools had full-time, paid, state-certified school librarians, compared to two-thirds in traditional public schools. A full 51 percent of charter schools don’t have a library, according to a 2017 ALA report.
In DC, Arizona, and Colorado—jurisdictions where charter schools are more than 10 percent of public schools—losses of school librarian FTEs between 2010 and 2016 exceeded 25 percent.
“Local control” is a phrase frequently heard in a political context today. This could also be considered “kicking the can” to lower governmental levels. Employment of certified school librarians has gotten caught in this dynamic. Congress would not include a requirement for school librarians in the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) nor were librarians required in former federal law No Child Left Behind, in effect handing the issue on to state governments. Most states have in turn passed it to local school districts, creating huge inequities across the nations’ schools for K–12 students and their access to quality school library programs.
Delegating education funding to local communities increases inequality. As state and federal education dollars shrink, local communities are left to pick up the slack with taxes. In 23 states, state and local governments together spend less per pupil in the poorest school districts than they spend in the most affluent ones, according to federal data from fiscal year 2012. Examples: “In Pennsylvania, per-pupil spending in the poorest school districts is 33 percent lower than per-pupil spending in the wealthiest school districts. In Vermont, the differential is 18 percent; in Missouri, 17 percent.”
However, the problem cuts deeper than money. It may be about what school leaders want and their priorities to meet school challenges in educating students. Site-based management (SBM), an organizational restructuring reform implemented in schools since the 1990s, has many variations but basically shifts authority for decision-making from a district level to a school one. Building principals often decide who controls resources and how they are allocated within the school. Some view SBM as participatory in nature; others, not. School library programs are at a disadvantage, as there is likely only one school librarian in the building to advocate and that person may or may not have teacher and administrative support.
A critical factor in SBM is what principals and other administrators understand about school library programs. They tend to have little knowledge of the research correlating quality school library programs and certified librarians with improved student achievement, including higher reading, writing, and graduation rates, as Melanie Lewis wrote in a 2016 School Libraries Worldwide article, “Professional Learning facilitators in 1:1 Program Implementation: Technology Coaches or School Librarians?” More than 90 percent of principals receive no formal training related to school librarians, and 65 percent of their knowledge comes from interactions with school librarians during their careers.
Therefore, some principals set high expectations for inclusion and integration of library resources and the expertise of the librarian in their school’s educational program; others do not. Some administrators may view the library as simply a place to rigidly schedule classes so teachers receive planning time or students have a place to go for study halls. School librarians with no instructional budgets, fixed schedules, and a lack of technology and professional development are vulnerable as their programs deteriorate. Principals unwittingly create an environment where the school library program is disconnected from learning goals, and declines.
School administrators’ job performance and evaluations are tied to the achievement of district-directed initiatives and increased student achievement. From “Trends in Digital Learning,” a 2014 document reporting results of a national survey from Project Tomorrow known as the Speak Up National Research Project, “more than nine out of 10 administrators…say that the effective use of technology within instruction is important for achieving their school or district’s core mission of education and preparation of students.”
This is further illustrated in a September 2016 survey of school district leaders asked to identify how they would use ESSA funds in their schools. The top five responses referred to instruction technologies and digital resources, according to Education Week. Principals are seeking experts with technology and digital skills to help them create innovative learning environments.
THE EVOLVING SCHOOL LIBRARIAN
School librarian job titles that have morphed into something new may not be reported to NCES as a “school librarian.”
In addition, in studying the implementation of 1:1 device programs, school leaders may seek trained tech facilitators to help teachers use technology and digital resources because “most principals lack the background knowledge, training, and technical expertise to provide this type of professional development,” as Lewis wrote. “Tech facilitators may have such titles as technology specialist, technology integration specialist, technology support specialist, technology coach, instructional technology coach, digital learning coach, technology coordinator, media specialist, library media specialist, school librarian, or teacher librarian.” There are no standard models for these instructional coaching jobs, leaving schools and districts to design and implement their own, she states.
“Though IT specialists are often viewed as essential tech leaders and are part of a school’s administrative team, school leaders don’t view school librarians through the same lens,” Melissa Johnston, professor in the Department of Educational Technology and Foundations at the University of West Georgia, wrote in a 2015 TechTrends article. “Consequently, they are not considered when adding technology facilitator positions.” In truth, there are still some school librarians who refuse to embrace technology, regardless of school priorities.
The numbers beg further investigation. Job losses are not abating, even as the school funding picture is beginning to stabilize. How many school librarian positions are truly being eliminated, and how many are morphing into new, changing job roles?