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Opinion | To boost literacy, Michigan must invest in school librarians

I believe that in order for Michigan to both address the needs of underserved children and to center on equity and excellence in education, we MUST reinvest in the school libraries in our state.

Kathy Lester
Kathy Lester is a school library media specialist in Plymouth-Canton Schools, and past president of the Michigan Association for Media in Education. (Courtesy photo)

There are multiple studies that show the presence of a school library staffed by a certified school librarian (also called library media specialist in Michigan) in a school correlates to high student achievement. These studies also show that students who are economically disadvantaged, Black, Hispanic or have disabilities benefit proportionally more than general students from the presence of a certified school librarian.

As a certified school librarian in Plymouth-Canton Community Schools (PCCS), I along with my colleagues across the state translated our services to meet the needs of our students and our entire school communities no matter the type of learning environment – virtual, hybrid, or in-person. The PCCS radio station 88.1 highlighted this work with the story “Who You Gonna Call?

One of the questions that I get when talking with legislators and community members is, “Don’t all of our schools have a school library?”  The answer: no, they do not.


Although the Michigan Department of Education does not keep statistics on the presence of a school library in a school, they do keep statistics on staffing. From the December 2019 staffing numbers, only 8 percent of our schools employ a full-time certified school librarian, 25 percent employ at least a part-time certified school librarian, and approximately 52 percent of our schools do not employ any library staff.

Without staff, you cannot have a school library.

This ranks Michigan as 47th in the nation in terms of the ratio of students to school librarians, according to 2018-2019 National Center for Education Statistics data. 

Correspondingly, our national rank in 4th-grade reading is 32nd and well below average in the latest National Assessment for Educational Progress results.

I often hear from legislators and administrators that they support school libraries and certified school librarians, but there is no available funding. Yet, I believe the issue is more complicated than available funding. 

According to the Michigan Department of Education’s Registry of Educational Personnel, the number of school librarians fell from 958 in 2009-2010 to 479 in 2020-2021, a 50 percent drop.  During the same time period, the number of district administrators rose from 1,807 to 3,629, a 100 percent increase. Thus, there was no money for certified librarians, but there was money for more administrators.

In addition, there are districts like Plymouth-Canton Community Schools and Brighton Area Schools that receive the minimum per-pupil funding from the state, yet have found a way to have a certified school librarian in each of their schools. 

I am also concerned that districts with higher poverty levels are less likely to have school librarians than those with low poverty levels. Thus, the students that can benefit the most from the lessons, services, and experiences provided by a certified school librarian are less likely to have that access.

The School Finance Research Collaborative (SFRC) published recommendations in 2018 based on evidence-based studies to modify school funding to better meet the needs of Michigan students. Its recommendations included employing one certified school library media specialist in each building.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer's budget proposals have incorporated some of the funding recommendations of the SFRC. However, the budget recommendations do not include any guidance on how to use the funding to match the SFRC best practices.

That is why I am asking legislators, educators, and community members to support the package of bills introduced by Representatives Daniel Camilleri, D-Trenton, Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth, and Amos O’Neal, D-Saginaw. These bills will ensure that all students in Michigan have access to a school library with a certified school librarian.

I have said this in the past, but as we look ahead to what education will look like past COVID-19, I think it is important to say again: Schools with a well-stocked and consistently funded library that is staffed by certified school librarians should be a reality for every child in Michigan, not a luxury reserved for a privileged few.

As a society, we prioritize what we value, and when we prioritize school libraries, we are saying that we value literacy and we value our students.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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