By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service
LANSING — All Michigan public schools would be required to maintain a library and hire a certified librarian under three bills introduced just ahead of School Library Month in April.
The bills — sponsored by Reps. Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth; Darrin Camilleri, D-Brownstown Township; and Kristy Pagan, D-Canton — would also require schools to have a supervisor to monitor students in the librarian’s absence. They mirror a package introduced in 2018 that never made it out of the House Education Reform Committee.
The proposal doesn’t allocate any money to bring schools into compliance, and every co-sponsor is a Democrat. But Koleszar, a first-time legislator, said he’s hopeful about the bills’ prospects now that the state is past the “craziness” of the last few months of the previous legislative session, when the first package was introduced.
“I believe in (the bills’) cause, because I was a public school teacher before,” said Koleszar, who worked for Airport Community Schools in Monroe County. “I know there are representatives on other side of the aisle that have an education background, so we’ll see if we can work together to get this thing through.”
Michigan is one of the worst in the nation for library access, ranking 47th for its student-to-school librarian ratio, according to the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest union of teachers and other school personnel.
Quality school libraries and certified staff are necessary, said co-sponsor Rep. Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids. Individual families can’t foot the bill for every resource required for a proper education.
“We all know buying books, videos and media for all of our individual homes can rack up the cost pretty quickly,” Hood said. “Access to books is critical in order to encourage children to read and become lifelong learners. Exposure to media materials helps to capture a child’s interest, imagination and curiosity.”
Fewer than one in 10 Michigan schools have a full-time media specialist and 65 percent have none at all, said Kathy Lester, a media specialist at Plymouth-Canton East Middle School and the advocacy chair for the Michigan Association for Media in Education. Detroit schools are particularly in need.
“Right now, Detroit has two or three media specialists in their whole district and they are all at high schools,” Lester said. “All of those elementary and middle school students are missing out on having the support they need for learning — even how to read.”
Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson has helped rehabilitate eight unused school libraries in the city. In one case, the library had been used as a storage room and books had disappeared from shelves because of a lack of funding for staff, Lester said.
Jackson’s foundation refers to the refurbished spaces as “literacy lounges,” as the schools lack the staff to provide full library services, she said. While it’s good to see the push to increase access to books, she questions if the lounges’ luster will last without a librarian in the building.
“How long will it be before it turns back into that storage room without having someone there?” she said. “Those kids need someone to help them, to support them with their learning and literacy skills.”
The divide is just as significant in rural areas, Koleszar said.
It’s no coincidence that the state is fourth-worst in the nation for its student-librarian ratio and fifth-worst in literacy, he said. By mandating the specialists, the state would be “supporting our students with a valuable resource.”
Public school librarians can point students to resources like the Department of Education’s Michigan eLibrary, which provides residents with free research information and inter-library loans — providing a path toward solving poor performances in literacy, Koleszar said.
“When you have a good media specialist in the school library, literacy rates rise,” he said.
But increasing access is just the first step, as many online resources are “not good” and can easily lead children down the wrong path, Koleszar said.
“If you tell a child to go online to do a research project without someone guiding them through it, there’s a lot of biased or bad information out there,” Koleszar said. “When you’re a beginner it can be very difficult, and a library media specialist can help them through that.”
Media literacy is a necessary skill for modern life whether a student’s career plans involve college or not, Lester said. From recognizing when an image or video has been manipulated to making sure their social media accounts don’t scare away employers, students need to be prepared to navigate a world heavily dependent on technology, she said.
Because library media specialists are certified teachers, they have a broad understanding of available media resources and how to teach students best practices, Lester said.
While she’s “a teacher, not really a political person,” Lester said she’s “very hopeful” this bill package can succeed where its predecessor didn’t. And if the bills don’t pass, she said she at least hopes to see them spark a wider discussion about media literacy, technology and their impacts on children’s futures.
“Teachers will often have the subject matter and curriculum expertise, and they rely on the media specialist to help them with the technology portion,” she said. “No matter what career kids are going into, they need to know how to use technology in a meaningful way.”