I'm blogging from the breakfast room at Courtyard by Marriott in Anaheim. I've spent the weekend at the American Library Association conference (ALA). It's a fabulous show, full of people who love books and authors and aren't shy about showing it.
But, being a novelist, I have an ear for conflict. And the dark undercurrent at the show is budget cuts. I can't count the number of librarians I've spoken to who are either 1) losing their jobs completely, 2) narrowly escaped losing their jobs recently, or 3) being forced to take teaching jobs. The problem seems to be equally severe among school and public librarians, but let me focus on the school librarians.
These cuts, frankly, are bat-poop crazy. Eliminating school librarians while trying to increase student performance is like cutting half the foundation while trying to build a skyscraper. There are more than 60 studies conducted in 22 states directly linking student performance on standardized tests with the presence of a qualified librarian in students' schools. If we want to improve student test scores, then we need to more than double the number of librarians employed in public education--to ensure that each and every student is served by a fully qualified school librarian.
Since we're cutting librarians instead of hiring more, I have to question the sincerity of the politicians screaming for "school reform." I hesitate to use the phrase "school reform" even with quotes, because to the extent that we allow the issue to be framed as "reform," we lose the debate. And reform isn't an accurate description of what's happening. If we were serious about reforming our schools, we'd add school days to the calendar, hours to the school day, and librarians to every school lacking one--all things that have a proven, positive effect on student achievement on standardized tests. Merit pay for teachers would be a non-issue, since we know it doesn't work. So the agenda clearly isn't about "school reform"--it's about keeping our tax rates for the wealthiest Americans at their historically low levels, or perhaps dropping them even further.
So let's start calling the "school reform" movement what it really is: a school privatization movement. It's already reducing kids' access to books and librarians. We already have a two-tier system--anyone who's visited an inner city school and a wealthy private school knows exactly what I'm talking about. Continued budget cutting is only exacerbating this divide. We have a fundamental choice to make as a country--should America be the land of opportunity, where every student has a chance to work hard and succeed--has access to great teachers, librarians, and libraries; or do we want to be a land of low taxes? I vote for the former.