School Library Monthly/Volume XXVII, Number 7/April 2011
Beyond the Library Door: The Story of Pennsylvania's HR 987
by Debra E. Kachel
Deb Kachel, a former school librarian and library supervisor, is an online instructor for Mansfield University's School Library and Information Technologies Graduate School. She is co-chairperson of the Legislation Committee for the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives unanimously passed a historic resolution, HR 987, on October 5, 2010. This resolution authorized a first-of-its-kind, comprehensive survey of school libraries. The resolution provided for a study "measuring and comparing funding, facilities, access to print and electronic resources, professional support, and programming and instruction in the use of information and research among the Commonwealth's public schools and districts and evaluating how these elements are allocated in relation to student and community circumstances, such as poverty, disability, race, and English language ability."
Libraries for All
The study will provide recommendations to "provide all students with the school library resources, facilities, programs, and instruction to enable them to become successful readers, learners, researchers, and consumers and producers of information" and "to address school library inequities or insufficiencies affecting disadvantaged students and communities" (http://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/billinfo/billinfo.cfm?syear=2009&sind=0&body=H&type=R&BN=0987). With these data, the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association (PSLA) and its members will finally have evidence of the inequities of school library programs across the state, achieving the first phase of an action advocacy plan.
How did all this come to pass? It took time, mentors and allies, and an organized and committed effort by the leadership and members of PSLA. From 2007-2009, PSLA leaders developed partnerships, joined the steering committee of a coalition to support a new state funding formula for education, and generally learned how the state legislature worked. A strong partnership with the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania (ELC) developed. The ELC, formed in 1975, works as a nonprofit, legal and education advocacy organization "to ensure quality public education for Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable children—poor children, children of color, children with disabilities, English language learners, children in foster homes and institutions, and others" (http://www.elc-pa.org/about/about.html).
Baruch Kintisch, Director of Policy Advocacy and Senior Staff Attorney with ELC, and his colleague Sandy Zelno shared this successful advocacy model:
- First, gather baseline data and find out the inequalities of opportunities for students.
- Second, find out what it costs to provide equitable services.
- Finally, implement both short-term, "success" activities to keep members engaged and long-term, goal-oriented strategies to achieve identified outcomes (http://www.elc-pa.org/about/about.html).
Two key strategies are ongoing throughout all steps—outreach and communication to develop recognition of PSLA and its position. Another critical component is "champion building"—in other words, cultivating others outside the organization to support positions. In the case of PSLA, a "champion" is an influential individual or organization not typically associated with the library profession who will speak on behalf of strong school library programs for Pennsylvania's 1.8 million public school students.
Outside Opinions Provide Fresh Perspectives
Kintisch identified that legislation was needed to establish line-item funding in the annual state budget and regulations in order to create standards for school library services. Since Pennsylvania has no comprehensive data collection and reporting for school libraries, no state standards or regulations for such services, no designated school library funding, nor a system of oversight and accountability for school libraries and staffing, it was clear to ELC that PSLA needed to target state legislators to impact a real change. Although individual librarians have tried for years to impact support for school libraries at a district or building level, this approach cannot bring about equitable school library programs for students in all 3100+ school buildings in Pennsylvania.
In 2009, small groups of PSLA members, sometimes accompanied by ELC staff, met with key legislative leaders in both the House and Senate, particularly Education Committee members. These sessions confirmed that legislators had no idea that there were such disparities across the state in school library services, placing many students at educational risk and others with clear advantages. For example, in 1987, every school in Philadelphia, the largest district in Pennsylvania, had a certified school librarian and a trained library assistant. Today, there are only seventy-two certified librarians and twenty-six assistants in the district’s 258 schools. More than half of the schools no longer have a school library (Tales 2010). In the Pittsburgh Public Schools, most of the fifty-seven schools either share a school librarian or have assigned their full-time librarian other duties, effectively making them part-time librarians (Rujumba 2010). Legislators were mostly unaware that school libraries and librarians are not mandated by Pennsylvania law. Legislators also wanted to know how many schools in their districts didn’t have school libraries or librarians and how much a quality school library cost. These were questions that could not be answered by the PSLA members.
Creating a Plan
At the April 2010 PSLA Conference, "Building Support for School Libraries: A Strategy Panel Discussion" was held to generate and share ideas. Invited panelists included the Pennsylvania PTA president, an educational strategist who also was a key leader of the Pennsylvania School Funding Campaign (the coalition PSLA had joined), a Pennsylvania Department of Education representative, and Baruch Kintisch (ELC). The two-hour session provided time for valuable questions and answers that helped PSLA focus on the issue at hand and commit to a plan for future actions.
In the summer of 2010, recognizing that baseline data was needed first, a resolution requesting that a study of the status of current school library programs was drafted by PSLA with assistance from ELC staff who had expertise in writing such resolutions. After seeking advice from key legislative aides, the consensus was to go through the House controlled by Democrats since in Pennsylvania a resolution need not be voted on by both chambers. PSLA asked Rep. Mark Longietti (Mercer County Democrat) to be the primary sponsor. A young, well-respected legislator, Rep. Longietti was the perfect candidate and did a remarkable job of moving the resolution through the House. PSLA members were called upon to ask their state representatives (both their home address and school address) to become co-sponsors. Due to the hard work of PSLA members, almost half of the members of the House of Representatives agreed to be co-sponsors, signaling that this resolution had significant statewide support. Longietti skillfully overcame several set-backs in negotiating the final version. The resolution was introduced in April 2010, and finally passed in October amid brutal haggling over a constrained state budget.
During this time, PSLA also met with the leaders of state administrators, teachers, and parent associations. In May 2010, PSLA and the Pennsylvania PTA held their first joint summit. Leaders of the parents association were stunned to learn the widespread nature of library closings and the lack of requirements regarding school libraries. The parents recommended action to increase public awareness about the benefits and needs of quality school library programs and to communicate this message broadly (Kachel 2010, 5).
After the Resolution was passed, PSLA offered to assist the State Board of Education in developing survey questions needed to gather relevant information as stated in HR 987. Consequently, a detailed SurveyMonkey was launched in January to all Pennsylvania schools. PSLA advocates will also assist in writing the final report due by July 2011. PSLA members are extremely excited that the advocacy efforts are paying off and that accurate data will soon be available as evidence of the inequalities of school library programs for students.
Critical StrategiesPSLA leaders and members learned some critical strategies throughout this process that will guide the organization in the future. Specifically, they learned how to:
- develop and build partnerships beyond the library door,
- create and articulate a message that resonated with other potential advocates,
- organize and lead Pennsylvania’s school librarians in a united campaign.
Developing and Building Partnerships Beyond the Library Door
Without the assistance from ELC, PSLA members would not have had the expertise to develop an action plan resulting in a comprehensive legislative study of school library programs. Critical bridges of communication have been made with school administrator, teacher, and parent organizations, including the prestigious State Board of Education and members of the state House and Senate Education Committees. Teams of PSLA members were coordinated to make after-school visits to local legislators' district offices; retired PSLA members visited legislators in Harrisburg. PSLA members also cultivated "champions" for school libraries. Certainly Rep. Longietti has become a school library champion. When he saw how quickly PSLA was able to get almost 100 co-sponsors for his House Resolution, PSLA earned his respect. There is now a strong ally in the Pennsylvania Assembly.
Creating and Articulating a Message that Resonated with Other Potential Advocates
Prior to HR 987, PSLA tried to clarify the role of the librarian, often recanting that the mission of the school library is “to ensure that students and staff are effective users of ideas and information” (American Association of School Librarians 2009, 8). It became clear the message needed to be about equality of services for students, not just about what school librarians do. No parent or legislator wants to hear that their children or constituents are at an educational disadvantage due to inequities of resources. The revised message changed the focus from public relations (who librarians are and what they do) to a marketing message (what librarians can do for you). So now the message is:
Ensure that all Pennsylvania's K-12 students have access to quality school library programs with a certified school librarian who teaches 21st-century learning skills.
Organizing and Leading Pennsylvania's School Librarians in a United Campaign
PSLA's Legislation Committee frequently communicated via listservs, its Web site, and state journal to mobilize members to contact their legislators and others. Sample language for emails was posted with links to find legislator contact info. Members were additionally motivated by severe cuts to the state-funded ACCESS PA and the POWER Library databases projects. The POWER Library databases were the only subscription-based electronic resources that 412 of the 500 school districts had access to (Kachel and Hauer 2009). The fear of losing them, plus the organized campaign that PSLA proposed, caused many librarians who had previously never contacted a legislator to act. A postcard campaign was launched in Spring 2010 to ask legislators for support. Three thousand postcards were distributed at the spring conference with an additional copy printed as a tear-out in the state journal. As a result, $30,000 was reinstated to those two state-funded projects.
Replicating Advocacy Efforts
Pennsylvania's successful new approach to advocacy can be replicated in other states. However, school librarians and their state organizations need to get serious about political activism and recognize their capacity to enact change. Yes, there is a learning curve and it takes time and leadership, but librarians can learn to navigate a state legislature. Librarians can identify and contact potential advocates outside the library profession to become champions for school libraries. Librarians can communicate and find common ground with other education-friendly organizations, seeking advice and following successful strategies used by others. Librarians can also execute a planned campaign. School librarians are, after all, specialists in research, communication, and organization. Students deserve no less than the best and most committed efforts.
American Association of School Librarians. Empowering Learners: Guidelines to School Library Media Programs. American Library Association, 2009.
Education Law Center. http://www.elc-pa.org/about/about.html (accessed January 13, 2011).
Kachel, Debra E. "Legislatively Speaking." Learning and Media 38, no. 4 (Fall 2010): 4-6.
Kachel, Debra E., and Susan Hauer. "Read Between Lines of Library Cuts." Harrisburg Patriot News, 23 September 2009. http://www.pennlive.com/editorials/index.ssf/2009/09/read_between_lines_of_library.html (accessed January 13, 2011).
Pennsylvania House of Representatives. HR 987. October 5, 2010. http://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/billinfo/billinfo.cfm?syear=2009&sind=0&body=H&type=R&BN=0987 (accessed January 13, 2011).
Pennsylvania School Funding Campaign. http://www.paschoolfunding.org/ (accessed January 13, 2011).
Rujumba, Karamagi. "School Librarians Losing Jobs as City Schools Feel Pinch." The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1 May 2010. http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10121/1054771-53.stm (accessed January 13, 2011).
Tales, Dafney."Teachers’ Union Chief Pushes for Funding for School Libraries." Philadelphia Daily News, 24 November 2010. http://www.philly.com/dailynews/local/20101124_Teachers__union_chief_pushes_for_funding_for_school_libraries.html#ixzz16RYH3USU (accessed January 13, 2011).