Charter Schools, Segregation, and School Library Access

Who loses? An educational policy analyst looks at the data on school libraries, the charter and choice movement, and questions about racial equity.
While budget cuts in education over the last decade have had a major impact on the numbers of school libraries and librarians, decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. Prioritizing spending on certain activities over others reflects values related to the purpose of schools, revealed by policy decisions over several decades. Public education policies that have devalued school libraries and librarians include the expansion of choice policies and charter schools, linked to gaping inequity resulting from a lack of desegregation policies. Research shows that choice reforms, such as charters, have perpetuated a deeply inequitable system where students are increasingly segregated by race and socioeconomic status. The expansion of charter schools and segregation informs the national trends in school libraries—but how? A close data analysis unpacks some of the reasons. In addition, two regional case studies, in Chicago and California, indicate serious racial gaps in access to school libraries, also related to charter policy and school segregation.

On charter policy

Federal government pressure and private sector influence in education have shaped the charter landscape. While choice policies have been around for decades, charter schools came onto the scene in 1992. Their expansion was buoyed by bipartisan political support, rooted in a faith in neoliberal policies and market-like accountability for schools, as noted by Thomas Pedroni and Michael Apple and in a Teachers College Record article. During the Clinton administration, the U.S. Department of Education promoted private sector-like reform strategies, including outcomes-based testing and market-like competition, as Christopher T. Cross writes in Political Education: National Policy Comes of Age (Teachers College Press, 2004). This was magnified during the second Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind. Simultaneously, in the early 2000s, private-sector financing from organizations including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation advocated to expand charter policies and schools, allowing for the establishment of national charter chains such as the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). The Obama administration’s Race to the Top (RttT) grants further advanced charter reforms, awarding funding based on a state’s promise to meet predetermined policy goals. One major focus was the adoption of charter policies, with the grants weighted toward states that guaranteed to “[ensure] successful conditions for high-performing charters and other innovative schools” and “turning around the lowest-achieving schools.” That effectively meant turning public schools over to charter management. The Trump administration has broadly promoted choice policies as well, including charter schools and vouchers, which would allow students to use public tax dollars to attend private schools.

Fewer libraries in charter and choice schools

Why don’t charter schools prioritize libraries? Several factors are at work. These schools are under tremendous pressure to produce test scores in order to meet their charter. That, combined with the challenge of starting a school, has produced consequences, including prioritizing test scores over other pedagogical needs. In addition, smaller schools, including charters, sometimes contend with shared facilities and tight quarters. In New York City, for example, small choice and charter schools often share a large building and facilities, including libraries. Many libraries have also been reutilized for other purposes, such as classroom space. Since charters aren’t usually required to meet certification requirements, and often set budgets autonomously from districts, they can prioritize spending in areas other than libraries. For example, charter schools tend to spend more on advertising and marketing than public schools in order to recruit students and families. It is also difficult to find public documentation about school libraries in charters. This is emblematic of a major challenge in educational policy: the lack of consistent, publicly-available data on charter schools, which are often managed by privately held organizations, and not subject to public reporting standards. Quality data on libraries and librarianship is also scarce. Much information collected at the local level is self-reported or incomplete. Moreover, school library data frequently does not include charters, which comprise a substantial portion of schools in many cities. These issues may help explain why charters have lower reported rates of libraries and school librarians nationally and locally. In 2011–12, the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) reported that less than half of charter schools (49 percent) had a library space, compared to 93 percent in traditional public schools. In New York City, nearly all (94 percent) of charters have no librarian, compared to 57 percent of traditional public schools. Chicago Public Schools, the state of California, and the Los Angeles Unified School district echo these trends.

On school segregation

Segregation is a persistent problem in U.S. public schools, including charters. The nation’s schools were most desegregated in the late 1980s and have since resegregated nearly to the point when the Brown v. Board of Education ruling passed in 1954. Supreme Court rulings, such as Milliken v. Bradley and Parents Involved in Community Schools, derailed desegregation policies post-Brown v. Board of Education. Segregation by race and socioeconomic status is linked to lack of resources. “On every tangible measure—from qualified teachers to curriculum offerings—schools serving greater numbers of students of color had significantly fewer resources than school serving mostly white students,” according to data from Alabama, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Texas, writes Linda Darling-Hammond in The Right To Learn: A Blueprint for Creating Schools that Work (Jossey-Bass, 2001). This impacts the quality of libraries and the likelihood of a school having a school librarian. While choice policies could, in theory, help mitigate school segregation, charters aren’t organized with desegregation policy in mind. Many do not include civil rights protections or policies that allow students to cross district boundaries, leading many to argue that charters have become a piece of the school segregation puzzle. Increasingly, they are located in racially segregated or low-income neighborhoods. While charters constitute about six percent of national public school student students, more than half (56 percent) of students attending charters are in urban areas—a much higher percentage than the students in urban public schools overall (29 percent). The UCLA Civil Rights Project also reports that charters tend to be more racially and socioeconomically segregated than traditional public schools. “At the national level, 70 percent of black charter school students attend intensely segregated minority charter schools (which enroll 90–100 percent of students from under-represented minority backgrounds), or twice as many as the share of intensely segregated black students in traditional public schools. Some charter schools enrolled populations where 99 percent of the students were from under-represented minority backgrounds.” This results in inequitable education, including access to resources and facilities such as libraries.

Chicago: library loss, segregation, and the charter gap

In 2017, Chicago Public Schools made headlines by budgeting for 139 school librarians for more than 600 schools. According to the Chicago Tribune, this was a dramatic drop from 2013, when the district had budgeted for 454 librarians—and from 2012, when there was one librarian per school, according to the Chicago Teachers Union. There appear to be many reasons for this shift. According to NPR, librarians in the city’s public schools are being “reassigned” to classroom duties. Principals faced with increasingly tight budgets may decide that librarians with teaching certification are needed in the classroom. Budget cutbacks have particularly affected the highest-need schools and libraries—those that are predominantly low-income and have a high racial minority.* The data set used for this analysis is from the Chicago Public Schools website and represents 238 schools. Data include budgets for FY 17 and the proposed budget for 2018. For this analysis, school librarian positions were compiled and compared. While this data does not include charters, they represented 15 percent of Chicago schools as of 2015–16, according to the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. Students attending charters tend to be lower income (88 percent receiving free and/or reduced lunch versus 80 percent at non-selective traditional public schools) and black (54 versus 35 percent). According to this analysis, 127 (53.4 percent) of the schools have a full-time librarian—more than reported by the Chicago Tribune. A comparison of budget allocations for FY17 with the proposed FY18 budget tracks the fluctuations in Chicago librarian positions (Figure 1). Figure 1 shows that the majority (87 percent) of Chicago schools will see no budgeted change for school librarians (including those with and without librarians currently). However, an additional 10 percent (23 schools) will lose a full librarian in 2018, while a few more will lose partial positions. Two percent of schools will gain a position. Figure 2 shows the percent increase of schools that will have no librarian in 2018. While most position types experience some loss, the greatest are among full-time librarians (one position). Map 1 shows the librarian staffing rate juxtaposed with the black/white neighborhood population in Chicago, using Chicago school librarian staff numbers from the 2017 budget and census data of racial demographics from 2015. Map 1: Chicago School Library Staffing in Predominantly Black/White Neighborhoods This map shows that schools with no librarians are located in or near predominantly black Chicago neighborhoods, particularly on the South Side. Many schools with one or more librarians are in predominantly white neighborhoods, while those with a FY 2017 allocation for less than one are scattered throughout the city. This confirms concerns raised by librarians in the Chicago Tribune article regarding the racial gap to accessing libraries.

The Charter Gap in California and Los Angeles

California has also faced serious challenges staffing school libraries. The state “continues to rank at the bottom of professional library staffing numbers,” with only nine percent of schools having a credentialed teacher librarian, according to the California Department of Education (CDOE), which collects annual data about school libraries. According to a 2015–16 survey from the CDOE, the majority (90 percent) of responding schools indicated that they had a library facility on campus in 2015–16 (Figure 3). Unlike the Chicago data set, some charter schools were included in the survey, which included responses from 39 percent of the over 11,000 schools in the state. Figure 3 shows only a small percent of schools (eight percent) reporting no library, consistent with the national trends. However, only small portions of those schools with libraries in Figure 3 reported having credentialed staff. Among schools with a library on campus, only 22 percent reported “at least one paid credentialed staff” working there. Similarly, 33 percent of schools with shared libraries stated they had a library “credentialed staff” member. In other words, the existence of a library doesn’t mean it is fully staffed. Among those few schools that reported having a credentialed staff member indicated variations in the type of certification the staff held (Figure 4). While 79 percent of the credentialed staff in libraries were teacher librarians, this percentage represents a small portion of the total schools included in this survey, as so few schools had librarians at all.  Where fully credentialed librarians were not present, many schools filled in library staffing needs by hiring “classified” employees. On average, credentialed staff (including teachers without librarian credentials) were reported to be working only one quarter of a full time job. Classified library staff members were, on average, only working about 2/3 time (.68 employees). Figure 5 shows how other California respondents answered questions about their lack of school library. Figure 5 indicates that the majority (83 percent) of California schools without a library never had one. A smaller portion of respondents indicated that the school library had been closed—either within the last three years (eight percent) or more than three years ago (four percent). A last group reported that their school didn’t have a library because the school facilities were new. That echoes the findings in New York City, where newer schools focus on other start-up priorities. Of those schools where libraries closed, Figure 6 highlights respondents’ reasons for the closure. While many of the answers appear interrelated, more recent closures seem to be due to budget and staffing cuts. There is little change in responses regarding the age of the library collection, use of space in the school, and general lack of use of the library. As mentioned earlier, the data for California disaggregate schools by type, including charter schools, magnets, and traditional public. Figure 7 shows a stark contrast in responses from charter schools. Consistent with national trends, only 49 percent of California charters reported a library on campus, compared to 93 percent of traditional public schools. Among charters with no library, the overwhelming majority (95 percent) never had one. Among the few charters with libraries, only a very small portion also have a librarian. Among respondents, statewide, only 18 charters reported a library with a librarian.


Data for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) reinforce data trends on a local level. Again, the overall low rate of participation is notable, especially from charter schools. Table 1 shows the participation rate in 2015–16. Clearly, there is a gap in data, particularly among charter schools, with 87 percent not participating in the survey. This gap is critical, because LAUSD charter schools tend to serve the highest need and lowest income student populations. Of the 44 charters that did participate, the vast majority (42 schools) reported having a library—but only eight had a staff librarian. Among participating LAUSD schools, Map 2 shows that schools with at least one school full-time librarian are located in predominantly Hispanic/Latino neighborhoods. Like the Chicago data, we can see geographic gaps in the Los Angeles survey participation from. The predominantly African American neighborhoods in LA either do not have survey responses or have less than one library staff. Map 2. LAUSD School Respondents by Demographics and Librarian Staffing Hours

Looking forward: neighborhood equity and DATA on charters

Despite an emphasis on state and district education data collection since the early 2000s, the vast majority highlights demographics, graduation rates, and test scores—not school library data. California’s survey is one of the most comprehensive data sets, but it is self-reported, incomplete, and not representative of charter schools. To get a more comprehensive picture of the situation, collecting this data is critical. Another important question is why there is so little reported information about charter schools and libraries. Is the problem a failure to collect data from charters, or is it more fundamentally rooted in the fact that charters do not have libraries—and as such, less likely to respond to surveys? As choice policies, including charter schools, continue to expand with federal incentive, addressing this question is paramount. Finally, mapping data reveals geographic gaps in access to school libraries, related to persistent segregation of neighborhoods and schools. In general, the Chicago and Los Angeles data shows a lack of librarian staff in predominantly black neighborhoods. As both of these case studies encapsulate a single district, one would expect to see more continuity between neighborhoods. And yet, this analysis does not even begin to examine potential gaps between urban and suburban school districts. As policies in public education advance, we clearly need more comprehensive data to track the existence and evolution of school library facilities and the librarians who staff them.
Sarah Butler Jessen is a faculty member at the University of Southern Maine and the Founder and executive director of the White Barn Center for Research. Her book, Selling School: The Marketing of Public Education, examines the ethical quandaries that arise from the expansion of “edvertising” practices in public education. She lives in Maine with her family.
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Great story! One day when I was at my son's school (he was then in elementary) when a girl who had transferred to my son's public school from a charter school appeared to be fascinated by the library. I wondered why and was amazed when she told me her charter school did not have one. Just this morning, I sent money with my son to his public middle school to support the library.

Posted : May 04, 2018 05:21



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