Although so-called book ban legislation was recently introduced in Pennsylvania, I doubt it will affect my practice at an underfunded public school in West Philadelphia. The provision is intended to inform parents of suggestive material in programs and libraries. The bill follows other attempts across the country to limit student access to books on controversial topics. However, many underfunded schools do not have school libraries or many materials to fill them that could be examined for explicit content.
At first glance, national debates over book bans may appear to be a tension between right and left. However, a closer examination of the conflict reveals the inequality that has long defined the educational landscape. Politicians, families, and policymakers who support the intricacies of book selection in schools ignore low-income schools in their states that lack adequate literary resources.
I have never worked in a school with a functioning school library, let alone controversial. Rather, these rooms served as overflow space for overheated detentions and classrooms. The Oaken shelves were empty except for a few dusty jackets, showcasing 16-year-old SAT tips or offering pre-iPhone labor tips. None of them had graphic novels, anime archives, or contemporary young adult literature that would pique student interest.
These “libraries” lacked all of the controversial titles that are disputed in Capitol halls across the country. In fact, many oft-contested books are not taught in disadvantaged classes, not because of ideology, but rather because of the availability of resources. Fearing the asbestos blizzard from a damaged ceiling, I dared not touch decades-old resources in the bookroom of the North End Philadelphia high school where I taught several years ago. Down the street in my next post I had an allergic reaction to book lice infesting classics. (Apparently the copies of Of mice and Men had seen more than furry rodents.)
Although my current school has an environmental biohazard-free book closet with recent titles, it does not offer the range of titles offered by school libraries threatened by efforts to ban books. When the teachers I work with can get their hands on the versions most likely to be criticized, it is only through our own efforts, such as using the Donors Choose website. 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 Wawa orange shelf cases.
Notably, one of these ad hoc classroom collections lacks librarians to help with the research process, procure academic databases, or teach digital citizenship. Of Philadelphia’s 215 public schools, only six have a certified school librarian, according to the Pennsylvania Association of School Librarians..
This is despite studies showing that access to a school library can significantly improve student literacy and achievement.. Data from more than 34 studies demonstrate consistent academic benefits associated with good library programs, benefits that were found to be more pronounced for most-at-risk learners when researchers controlled for school socioeconomic factors variables. and community and school.
The absence of books and librarians is not the only literacy material lacking in underfunded schools. We also often lack high-quality literacy intervention programs, remedial classes for struggling learners, and specialized educators.
This gap is deeply felt in states like mine, where school funding has long relied on property taxes. According to many of these funding formulas, the wealthier the neighborhood, indicated by the value of the house, the greater the funding per student. This resulted in postcode-based education apartheid. School funding per student can vary by several thousand dollars over a few miles.
Not surprisingly, there is a consistent correlation between spending on education and better student outcomes. Funding translates into the ability to procure literacy resources, books and libraries that have been proven to increase literacy.
The charged assumption in the nationwide wave of legislative attempts to target educational materials on ideological ground is that schools have equal resources to procure books, materials, and librarians. In other words, calls for (and against) book bans ignore entrenched systems that have created inequitable and underfunded schools.
Leftist dissidents have also embraced this error. In a recent New York Times letter to the editor, a free speech enthusiast appealed that “all righteous and thoughtful people must now support their local school and public librarians.” As an urban educator in Philadelphia, I witness that only certain schools have the staff resources to make such support possible.
The inequitable funding that exists between districts is the greatest form of censorship – equal opportunity censorship. Before we talk about banning books and holding librarians accountable, let’s talk about literacy resources in low-income districts like mine in Philadelphia and others across the country.