Though so-called book-banning legislation was recently introduced in Pennsylvania, I doubt it will affect my practice at an underresourced public school in the West Philadelphia neighborhood. The provision aims to inform parents of suggestive material in curricula and libraries. The bill follows other attempts throughout the country to limit student access to books with controversial thematic matter. However, many underresourced schools do not have school libraries or many of the materials to fill them that could be examined for explicit content.
At face value, the national debates over book banning may appear to be a tension between the right and left. However, a closer look at the conflict reveals the inequity that has long defined the educational landscape. Politicians, families, and policymakers who argue the finer points of book selection in schools are ignoring the low-income schools in their states that don’t have adequate literary resources.
I have never worked in a school with a functional school library, much less a controversial one. Those rooms instead functioned as overflow space for detentions and overheated classrooms. Oaken shelves sat empty except for a few dusty jackets, highlighting SAT tips from 16 years prior or offering workforce tips that predated the iPhone. None of them had graphic novels, anime archives, or contemporary young-adult literature that might grab students’ interest.
Those “libraries” were missing all the controversial titles that are being contested in capitol halls across the country. In fact, many often-contested books are not taught in underresourced classrooms not because of ideology but rather because of resource availability. Fearful of the blizzard of asbestos from a damaged ceiling, I didn’t dare touch decades-old resources in the book room of the high school in the North Philadelphia neighborhood where I taught several years ago. Down the street, in my next position, I had an allergic reaction to the book lice infesting the classics. (Apparently, the copies of Of Mice and Men had seen more than furry rodents.)
Though my current school has a book closet that is not an environmental biohazard and features some recent(ish) titles, it does not offer the breadth of titles that the school libraries under threat from book-banning efforts do. When the teachers I work with can get our hands on the releases that are most likely to come under fire, it is only through our own efforts, like using the website Donors Choose. In the absence of school libraries, it is not uncommon for teachers to create private classroom libraries from donations. Like mine in Room 250, these usually take the form of clusters of orange Wawa shelving crates.
Notably missing from any of these ad hoc classroom collections are librarians to assist in the research process, procure academic databases, or teach digital citizenry. Of the 215 Philadelphia public schools, only six have a certified school librarian, according to the Pennsylvania Association of School Librarians.
This is despite studies that show that access to a school library can significantly improve student literacy and achievement. Data from over 34 studies demonstrate consistent academic benefits associated with good library programs, benefits that have proved more pronounced for the most at-risk learners when researchers controlled for variables of school and community and school socioeconomic factors.
The absence of both books and librarians are not the only literacy materials missing from underresourced schools. We also often lack high-quality literacy-intervention programs, pullout classes for struggling learners, and specialized educators.
This gap is profoundly felt in states like my own, where school funding has been long based on property tax. Following many of these funding formulas, the wealthier the neighborhood, denoted by home value, the more funding per student. This has resulted in an apartheid of education based on ZIP code. School funding per student can vary by several thousand dollars within a few miles.
It is no surprise that there is a consistent correlation between education spending and better outcomes for students. Funding translates to the ability to procure literacy resources, books, and libraries that have been proved to increase literacy.
The assumption laden in the national wave of legislative attempts to target instructional materials on ideological ground is that schools have equal resourcing to procure books, materials, and librarians. In other words, calls for (and against) book bans ignore the entrenched systems that have created inequitable and underresourced schools.
Dissenters from the left have embraced this fallacy as well. In a recent New York Times letter to the editor, one free speech enthusiast issued the call that “all fair-minded, thinking people must support their local school and public librarians now.” As an urban educator in Philadelphia, I am a witness to the fact that only certain schools have the personnel resources to make such support possible.
The inequitable funding that exists between districts is the greatest form of censorship—a censorship of equal opportunity. Before we talk about banning books and holding librarians accountable, let’s talk about literacy resourcing in low-income districts like mine in Philadelphia and others across the country.