Plans to put libraries in most Michigan schools get support from educators and parents

A library with shelves full of colorful books lining the walls with one black chair in the middle of the image. There is a large glass window looking out to another part of the school in the background.
Educators and parents showed support Tuesday for three bills that would make libraries mandatory in most Michigan public schools. (Anthony Lanzilote for Chalkbeat)

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Six years after they were first introduced, a package of bills that would put a library in almost every Michigan public school got a hearing for the first time in the Senate on Tuesday.

The three bills would make school libraries as well as certified librarians accessible to all students. The bills are finally getting consideration at a time when the number of school librarians in the state is dwindling and gaps in student literacy achievement are widening. Supporters say the legislation would help tackle the state’s literacy crisis.

Michigan is ranked 47th in the nation for its ratio of students per certified librarian, according to the most recent analysis by the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, with 2,988 students for every librarian.

Kathy Lester, former president of the American Association of School Librarians, told lawmakers the ratio “correlates very closely” with the state’s low literacy achievement scores. “This is a matter of equal access for our students in Michigan,” she said.

Making the legislation a reality would be costly. Local districts could have to pay as much as $403.7 million a year collectively to fulfill the bills’ mandates, in addition to initial costs to meet the new requirements, according to a fiscal analysis of the three bills.

But if they pass the bills, Michigan lawmakers would be giving school libraries a big vote of confidence. Many libraries across the nation are facing backlash from conservative community members and lawmakers who don’t want children to have access to books that cover topics such as racism, sexuality, gender, and in general topics deemed harmful or obscene.

Sen. Darrin Camilleri, a Democrat from Trenton who has introduced legislation to bolster school libraries for years, said he first saw the need for the legislation when he worked as a teacher at a charter high school in southwest Detroit and was shocked to find that it had no library.

School libraries are “increasingly being seen as an afterthought,” Camilleri said, even though they are crucial to improving literacy skills.

“We need to help all students have the resources they need to succeed, including grade-level aligned texts and knowledgeable, accessible school librarians no matter which school you go to or where you live,” he said.

The three bills, introduced in March, must pass a Senate Education Committee vote before they are considered by the rest of the Senate. The House has not yet considered the bills.

School library supporters say they play many roles

It’s not clear how many school libraries the state has. But state data shows less than 10% of schools that have libraries actually staff them with full-time certified librarians. That worries observers as well.

School librarians are essential, Lester said, because they lead the schoolwide culture of reading, connect students with the resources they need to learn, and provide crucial instruction they may otherwise miss out on.

She cited studies in Michigan and nationwide showing that schools with certified librarians produce better student outcomes on a range of measures, from higher graduation rates to higher scores on college entry exams.

Volunteers can fill the gap to a certain extent. Amy O’Brien, a parent who substituted as a librarian in Van Buren Public Schools for two days a week to keep the library open, said during Tuesday’s hearing that while she helped students check out books and supervised them, she wasn’t able to do everything a certified librarian is trained to do.

“What I couldn’t do was give them expertise in selection resources, teach lessons on information literacy, or teach lessons on information technology,” she said during the hearing.

O’Brien said she believes that to give students a “complete and equitable academic base for their studies” that all parents want, every school should have a fully staffed library with a fully certified librarian.

“The teaching and support that certified librarians provide should not be abandoned,” she said.

The lack of librarians and libraries can also increase burdens on other school staff, especially during staffing shortages.

Joy Lyman, a teacher and lead instructional coach at Flextech High school in Brighton, said none of the schools she’s taught in throughout her career had fully staffed school libraries.

When an alternative school she worked at got hundreds of books through a grant, they had to be stored in a closet since there was no library, and she had to track and organize them “on top of our normal teaching duties,” Lyman told lawmakers.

The bill would have different requirements for small rural schoolsSchools with fewer than 51 students would automatically get waivers from the Michigan Department of Education, although larger schools could also apply for waivers. Small schools would still be able to open school libraries or higher librarians if they chose to.

What would Michigan’s library bills do?

Here are some more details about the three bills discussed by senators on Tuesday.

  • One bill introduced by Camilleri would require every public school to have a library by the 2025-26 school year.
  • Under this bill, the libraries would have to be housed in a central location outside of classrooms and serve as hubs for community resources.
  • Every library would have collections that support students in reading independently as well as enriching their classroom curriculum.
  • The other bill from Camilleri would require every district to have certified school librarians in every school library it currently operates by the 2024-25 school year.
  • The librarians would work with other educators to provide literacy instruction and to ensure every student could read at grade level. They would also teach information, technology, and research skills.
  • Requirements for staffing librarians would be based on the size of districts. For example, schools with fewer than 300 students that don’t receive a waiver would have to employ at least one part-time certified school librarian. Schools with 300 to 1,499 students would need at least one full time librarian, and schools with 1,500 or more students would have to have at least two full-time librarians.
  • A third bill introduced by Sen. Rosemary Bayer, a Democrat from West Bloomfield, would require schools to designate staff to supervise students in school libraries when a certified librarian is not present.

Hannah Dellinger covers K-12 education and state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at hdellinger@chalkbeat.org.

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