- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2000

Browse a typical school library and you'll learn that humans haven't yet set foot on the moon and "stewardesses" must quit working when they get married.

Although the latest research indicates that a well-stocked and well-staffed school library actually boosts students' scores on standardized tests, many school libraries contain books that are outdated by decades and often filled with offensive stereotypes.

But federal funding for school libraries has plummeted over the past three decades. Libraries, particularly those in inner-city schools, generally don't have the money to chuck old books and buy new ones.

Localities and states also have cut school library funding as they have attempted to address other education needs. While the average cost of a new school library book is $16, the average per-pupil amount spent by school districts for books is $7 for elementary and middle school and $6 for high school.

Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, wants to remedy the situation. Mr. Reed has authored legislation to spend $275 million to permit school libraries to buy new books and advanced technology, such as software, on-line magazine subscriptions and other research tools.

His bill would provide more training for school librarians and permit school libraries to remain open longer. Neediest schools would be earmarked for help first.

"Too many books on school library shelves across the country contain harmful stereotypes and inaccurate material," Mr. Reed says. "In a multicultural world, students continually encounter books from a period when authors viewed the world from only a white perspective.

"Congress can and should provide funding to improve our children's books."

But Mr. Reed so far has been stymied in his efforts to boost school library funding. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee recently rejected Mr. Reed's effort to add his measure to the updated Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Republicans, led by Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, say they support increased federal funding for school libraries but argue that Congress should send federal education dollars to local districts with few strings attached.

If local schools want to spend money on improving libraries, that's fine. If they want to spend the money on other programs, that's their decision, Republicans argue.

"It's up to local parents and local educators to decide what the most important priority is," says Jeffords spokesman Joe Karpinski.

A new study by the Library Research Service of the Colorado State Library bolsters Mr. Reed's case.

It surveyed 850 schools in Pennsylvania, Alaska and Colorado and found student test scores in those three states improved by 10 percent to 15 percent in schools with strong library programs and qualified staff members.

Study director Keith Lance said "the bottom line across the three states" is that, once again, a school library's size and staff bear a positive correlation to student test scores.

Linda Carvell, president of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association, noted that the study makes a direct link between library spending and staffing and student test scores when "the pressure is on for student performance on tests… ."

"It seems to me that we'd better wake up and realize these factors are significant and we can't neglect school libraries," Miss Carvell said.

In addition to being factually outdated, many books are filled with sexist and racist images, librarians say.

One brightly illustrated picture book, published in 1962 and titled "Colonial Life in America," describes plantation life in idyllic terms: "A large plantation was like a village. Slaves had their own cabins."

Another book, "Studying the Middle East," was published in 1968 and states that Arabs "are addicted to leisure."

In 1974, federal funding for school libraries was rolled into a large block grant that gives school districts a choice on how to spend the money. As a result, many school librarians have found their budgets squeezed tighter and tighter as localities use federal funds on other school programs such as security.

"Every time there's another school shooting, that's another couple of hundred books that aren't bought," said Emily Sheketoff of the American Library Association's Washington office. "It's unfair that there are so many needs all fighting against each other in this block grant."

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