Opinion
Education Funding Opinion

Book Bans? My School Doesn’t Even Have a Library

How underfunding is its own form of censorship
By Lydia Kulina-Washburn — July 26, 2022 4 min read
Distressed photograph of an empty card catalogue cabinet
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Events

School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.
Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Webinar
Supporting 21st Century Skills with a Whole-Child Focus
What skills do students need to succeed in the 21st century? Explore the latest strategies to best prepare students for college, career, and life.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Funding The COVID School-Relief Funds You Might Not Know About, Explained
Governors got $7 billion to spend on COVID relief efforts for K-12 and higher education with broad discretion on how to use it.
6 min read
Illustration of a helping hand with dollar bill bridging economy gap during coronavirus pandemic, assisting business people to overcome financial difficulties.
Feodora Chiosea/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Education Funding Puerto Rico Schools to Use New Aid for Teacher Raises, Hurricane and COVID Recovery
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona announced $215 million in federal funds before the start of the new school year.
3 min read
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visits the University of Puerto Rico at Carolina during a trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico on July 28, 2022.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visits the University of Puerto Rico at Carolina during a trip to San Juan on July 28.
Carlos Rivera Giusti/GDA via AP Images
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Education Funding Quiz
Quiz Yourself: How Much Do You Know About ESSER funding for Career and Technical Education Programs?
Answer 7 questions to assess your knowledge on ESSER funding for CTE programs.
Content provided by iCEV
Education Funding 3 Things in the Senate Climate-Change Bill That Could Affect K-12 Schools
The sweeping proposal includes funding opportunities for schools to operate electric buses and improve air quality in buildings.
3 min read
Image: San Carlos, CA, USA - 2019 : Yellow low emissions NGV school bus refuel cleanest burning alternative fuel at compressed natural gas CNG fueling station owned by PG&E
Michael V/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus