I am writing this message as we look at what, I believe, is the best opportunity for school libraries to be recognized in Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), our nation’s most important federal K-12 education law. What happens in the next few days in a Senate committee will determine federal K-12 education programs for the next decade. If school libraries are not in the legislation, if we don’t succeed this week, we face a daunting hurdle to get federal school library programs acknowledged for many years. More and more students will not be served; a whole generation of low-income kids will go through school with inadequate or even no school library resources. Unfortunately, I am not exaggerating.
Please bear with me as I explain the political realities of what we are dealing with on this issue and how what happens this week in a Senate committee affect what will happen in the coming years. And, I want to emphasize to all library supporters — we need you to be nimble, tough and strategic as we ask you to take action in several ways as the possibilities for getting a school library program at the federal level unfolds in the coming days. We have some opportunities to succeed for school libraries and K-12 students in this next phase but we are facing some very real risks of losing. And, I don’t like to lose; not when it’s this important.
I want to answer some of your questions about federal school library proposals and if or how we can succeed in Congress for the long haul. Unfortunately, making legislation is really like making sausage so bear with me as I explain some of the crazy contradictions in the process.
What is happening in the U.S. Senate on school library proposals right now and what is ALA doing?
Starting today, (Wednesday, October 19) the U.S. Senate Committee on Health Education Labor and Pensions (HELP) begins a process to mark-up a bill to reauthorize ESEA. It is our understanding that by the end of this week, the HELP committee will complete its work on the bill, including many amendments. Then the bill goes to the Senate floor for a final Senate vote. We have no way of knowing when the bill will go to the Senate floor.
The public got access to the draft bill on October 11, 2011. This bill was changed on Monday, October 17 in what was called “the Manager’s Amendment” and the committee had a deadline of yesterday at 10:30 a.m. for other committee member’s amendments. Not an unusual situation while making sausage, I mean legislation. It is expected that there will be around 150 amendments to be considered.
Leading up to this point, and since the beginning of the 112th Congress in January of this year, ALA, working closely with the American Association of School Libraries (AASL), developed and successfully had the SKILLS Act introduced by Sen. Jack Reed and Thad Cochran asking for a federal initiative dedicated to supporting and enhancing school libraries as part of federal education legislation. This bill has only 5 cosponsors, which, unfortunately, is not enough to have this proposal “slide” through the Senate. The language of the SKILLS Act is the culmination of several other proposals we made in previous Congresses.
What will the Senate HELP Committee do this week?
This effort has been the height of “hurry up and wait.” For 2 years, ALA and its members have been talking to their legislators about including school libraries in federal legislation. Senators Reed and Cochran introduced the SKILLS Act in June 2011. There are various procedural steps expected as the final version of the ESEA bill actually goes to the committee for a mark-up; things will be happening quickly this week. The SKILLS Act has morphed into an amendment by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Patty Murray to the larger ESEA bill as the Senate HELP Committee begins its work. This is not an unusual occurrence as bills evolve and consolidate or morph through the legislative process. At this point, our advocacy alerts have started referring to a school library “amendment” rather than the SKILLS Act. We think the overall ESEA bill will pass, although we do not know if the school library provision will be supported. But another step in sausage making…
Who are our champions?
Senator Jack Reed continues to work very hard for school libraries. He wrote the SKILLS Act, recruited a Republican co-sponsor, Thad Cochran, and twisted arms to get the original co-sponsors (Senators Kerry, Murray, Rockefeller and Whitehouse). He got appropriations language for school libraries in this year’s Senate Appropriations bill and has worked with Senator Whitehouse to create this amendment to ESEA.
Senator Murray has agreed to co-sponsor the Senator Whitehouse’s school library amendment.
We need to say thank you.
What happens after the Senate passes ESEA?
Because of the history and difficulties in getting ESEA reauthorized in previous Congresses, the agreement between the House and the Senate is for the Senate to pass ESEA first. Then the bill would go to the House. The House has passed 4 smaller education bills, none of which address school libraries, and the Senate does not support that approach. On top of this, the current House leadership has indicated that it will not work on ESEA until 2013 — the next Congress, after the 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
Why are we so worried about the Senate bill and what is happening the House of Representatives?
We need for school library language to stay in ESEA for the next Congress. With the assumption that the 113th Congress will start with the Senate bill from this 112th Congress, it is extremely important that the school library provision gets into ESEA now.
If the House should vote on ESEA in this Congress, we must be in the Senate bill because there is no unique House bill. If school libraries are not included in this pending Senate bill, it is extremely unlikely that we would be able to persuade the same congressional players in the next Congress to add in a school library program. Is this type of dynamic written down anywhere? No, but because of many years of lobbying and political observing, we know what kind of challenge it would be.
What is the long term expectation?
First, we must succeed in the short term: get a school library program into the Senate’s ESEA now. By doing so, we position school libraries to be included when an ESEA bill is finally reauthorized, even if that is in the next Congress.
Why is ESEA taking so long to reauthorize?
Getting ESEA reauthorized, including changing the name from No Child Left Behind (NCLB), has taken years already. ESEA itself is controversial and the current political environment leading into the 2012 presidential election year complicates all legislation — this bill as a whole as well as our proposal for school libraries.
But, still, why can’t we get everything we want?
Well, like sausage, legislation is a mixture, often roughly ground up and stirred together. By nature, the legislative process is a series of compromises. In previous ALA initiatives to get federal school library legislation there were some provisions that are not now in the SKILLS Act. Unfortunately, we have not had great support from the education unions and from other K-12 organizations. We are competing with everything from literacy coaches to classroom teachers — even though we know that school librarians are both of these. In the present political environment and the challenging budget climate, we have to cling to survival for our school libraries and, more importantly, the students they serve. We have to survive in ESEA now to live another day to get funding or even more advanced programs in the future.
What can I do?
Please look at this blog twice a day. Put in a call to your U.S. Senators from your states at 202-224-3121. Those of you who have a senator on the Senate HELP Committee must be particularly active and alert. Please respond to every action alert — even if you called or wrote your senators before about school libraries. Get other colleagues and neighbors to also call in. It only takes a few moments to call the senate switchboard, ask for your Senators’ offices, and leave the message: Support school libraries in ESEA! Our country’s students perform better in schools with solid school library programs.
Director, Office of Government Relations